Rather is suing CBS for $70 million

September 20, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

Longtime CBS anchorman Dan Rather is suing his former employer for $70 million, alleging the network breached his contract, tried to destroy his reputation and ran him off as a 60 Minutes correspondent during his final days at CBS.

In the lawsuit filed yesterday in Manhattan, the 75-year-old Rather revisits the 2004 "Memogate" controversy that ended his 24-year career as anchorman of the CBS Evening News. (He left the anchor desk under a cloud of controversy in March 2005.)

Memogate centered on Rather alleging on the basis of unverified documents that President Bush received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard during his tour of duty at the time of the Vietnam War. CBS News was forced to retract the story and apologize for the charges that Rather made.

CBS issued a statement yesterday saying, "These complaints are old news and this lawsuit is without merit."

While executives declined to comment further on the record, sources within the news division expressed dismay that Rather's suit would refocus attention on the turmoil at CBS News since Memogate.

After a highly publicized network investigation, a producer was fired and three senior executives were forced to resign. Ultimately, Memogate cost CBS News President Andrew Heyward his job as well, with Rather being shunted off to marginal duties as a correspondent who seldom appeared on 60 Minutes. He ultimately left the network in June 2006.

Rather's lawsuit names Heyward along with CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves and Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone.

Never recovered

The news division has never recovered from the Memogate scandal. In trying to move past the debacle, Moonves rushed the network into a long-term contract with Katie Couric for $15 million a year.

But the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric has been a ratings and critical disaster. The broadcast finishes a distant third to those of ABC and NBC, drawing the smallest audiences CBS has experienced in decades.

Critics and former colleagues expressed concern as to how the lawsuit would affect Rather's legacy.

"How very sad," said Lee Thornton, a former CBS White House correspondent who now holds the Eaton chair in broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Dan Rather is one of the finest correspondents to ever come out of CBS. And I know how much he loved CBS News. This must have been very hard for him to do."

"This is bad news for CBS and sad news about Dan Rather," said former foreign correspondent Bill McLaughlin, who now teaches at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. "It focuses unpleasant attention on CBS at just the wrong time. ... This is probably the worst time in its history."

Describing Rather as "an esteemed journalist," McLaughlin predicted the lawsuit "is going to allow the unhappy ending of his career to again go under the microscope. The first question asked is going to be why now? Why 15 months later?"

Rather, who now serves as anchorman at HDNet, a digital cable channel with limited distribution, could not be reached for comment. He is scheduled to appear on CNN's Live With Larry King tonight, according to the cable channel.

Though Rather had always insisted on being treated as a journalist during his career, analysts yesterday said the lawsuit cast Rather in a celebrity light.

`One more facet'

"This is just one more facet of news anchor as celebrity, because $70 million is the sort of amount you'd expect a celebrity to sue a studio for," said Philip M. Seib, professor of journalism and public affairs at the University of Southern California.

"Meanwhile, some poor journalist at a newspaper somewhere who's making $50,000 a year is looking at this thinking, `We're not in the same business.' What we're looking at here is a spat between show business entities."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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