RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When Dan Rather stepped down from the anchor chair under a cloud four years ago, it had to do with his report on President Bush's military service record. At the time, an investigative panel commissioned by CBS News found the network violated basic journalistic standards. Key documents were challenged, the lead producer was fired, executives were forced out. But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, Dan Rather is now fighting CBS in court to try to reclaim his legacy.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: At 77, he moves a bit slower than you may remember, but Dan Rather is still as intense as ever, pursuing his lawsuit, he says, to flush out...
Mr. DAN RATHER (Former News Anchor, CBS): The connections, most of them secret connections, between huge international corporate conglomerates and Washington power, whether it be in the hands of Democrats or Republicans, and its influence on what news the Americans get.
FOLKENFLIK: Rather is speaking from his office suite in midtown Manhattan, where he and a small staff produce reports for the HDNet channel. He's the anchor in winter, 15 blocks and a million miles from the network where he worked for more than four decades. And now, he's suing CBS for $70 million for breach of contract. But Rather says he wants to bring to light what happened after that inflammatory story from September 2004, in which he reported Mr. Bush got special treatment in getting into the National Guard and in avoiding duties.
Mr. RATHER: But 60 Minutes has now obtained a number of documents we are told were taken from Colonel Killian's personal file.
FOLKENFLIK: It aired eight weeks before election day.
Mr. RATHER: Colonel Killian writes that Lieutenant Bush called him to talk about how he can get out of coming to drill from now through November.
FOLKENFLIK: Conservative bloggers slammed CBS and Rather, scrutinizing decades-old fonts to charge the documents were forgeries. Under fire, a key source changed his story. Others said they were taken out of context, and Rather and CBS backed down and apologized after 12 long days. The network said it would appoint an outside panel to figure out how its standards broke down, but Rather says the panel was tainted.
During the lawsuit, Rather's lawyers obtained internal CBS memos showing network officials and lobbyists checked the names of potential panelists with Republicans in Washington. CBS's top Washington lawyer pointed to one retired Republican senator who's listed among other conservatives as, quote, "unlikely to mollify the Right." Rather says that's telling.
Mr. RATHER: Pause and absorb that for a moment. It can't be an independent panel if your goal is to mollify one political segment, in this case a segment that was in power at the time.
FOLKENFLIK: Richard Thornburgh was picked for the panel. He was a governor who also served as Attorney General under the president's father, President George H. W. Bush. Then there were the journalists suggested for the panel. Gary Meyerhoff is one of Rather's lawyers.
Mr. GARY MEYERHOFF (Partner, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP): The list is a little more shocking. Radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, people associated with the far right in some circumstances.
FOLKENFLIK: Ultimately, CBS chose Louis Boccardi, the former CEO of the Associated Press, the non-ideological wire service.
The Thornburgh-Boccardi report basically gave Rather a pass and blamed the producers who reported the story and the executives who oversaw it. Rather and his team were also exonerated of any political agenda. But the report was severe. Andrew Heyward was president of CBS News at the time.
Mr. ANDREW HEYWARD (Former President, CBS News): This was arguably the greatest embarrassment in the history of CBS News' otherwise wonderful journalistic tradition.
FOLKENFLIK: Heyward says the panel wasn't compromised. He said he never seriously considered Limbaugh or Hannity or the like, but that he very much wanted a respected conservative involved, and Thornburgh fit the bill.
Mr. HEYWARD: This was my view of what we needed to do to cauterize the wounds and have a credible result across a broad spectrum, including our harshest critics. I would do the same thing today.
FOLKENFLIK: Before the report was released, Rather announced he was voluntarily relinquishing the anchor's desk the next spring. But he now says he was called in the day after the election and told he was out as anchor. He left the network in 2006, and now says that disavowed story about President Bush was true.
Mr. RATHER: What the documents stated has never been denied by the president or anyone around him.
FOLKENFLIK: Thornburgh's law firm colleague Michael Missal helped conduct the CBS investigation. Missal talked about the case back in March at Washington and Lee Law School and said something that sounds surprising.
Mr. MICHAEL MISSAL (Lawyer, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis LLP): It's ironic that the blogs were actually wrong when they had their criticism. We actually did find typewriters that did have the superscript, did have proportional spacing.
FOLKENFLIK: Rather asks, why wasn't that prominently placed in the report's findings? Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe reported extensively on President Bush's failures to meet military obligations. Robinson says Rather is missing the larger point about the documents, that they hadn't been proved to be genuine.
Mr. WALTER ROBINSON (Journalist, Boston Globe): And I don't know anybody outside of the CBS orbit who's looked at this and looked carefully at it, who believes that CBS should have aired that report.
FOLKENFLIK: In the wake of the retracted story, President Bush's military record became untouchable, even though the nation was once again at war. But Rather says CBS sought to make him an untouchable, and he's fighting to reclaim the story that led to his exile from network news.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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