The Problem with Dan Rather's Lawsuit: He Thinks He's Telling Us Something We Don't Already Know
Here’s the problem I have with Dan Rather’s $70-million lawsuit against CBS: He thinks he’s telling us something we don’t already know.
“Somebody, sometimes, has got to take a stand,” Rather intoned somberly last week on Larry King Live. “Democracy cannot survive, much less thrive, with the level of big corporate and big government interference and intimidation in news.”
Makes me wonder where Dan was in the run up to the Iraq war. Or what happened to his sense of separation from government interference when he went on David Letterman’s late night show, right after the 9/11 attacks, and pledged “George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”
But I digress.
Rather, in speaking out on this lawsuit, seems to think we don’t know that CBS was caving to enormous political pressure in its reaction to the furor following his infamous “Memogate” 60 Minutes II story. He also seems to think we didn’t notice that CBS hired a famous Republican – former attorney general for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Richard “Dick” Thornburgh – to co-chair the investigative committee looking into the story, or that the eventual report minimized CBS News executives’ missteps to focus on the producers’ failings.
He thinks, for some reason, that most Americans haven’t already come to terms with the focus of his story – that our current president, George W. Bush, got favorable treatment when he served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.
We know these things, because many of us reported on them when they happened.
“I want to make this clear, nobody to this day has shown that these documents were fraudulent,” said Rather, speaking about the questionable documents his team used to prove that Bush was not fulfilling his duties in the Guard. “Nobody has proved they were fraudulent, much less a forgery.
But that isn’t the question at hand regarding Rather’s story. The problem is that no one at CBS, including Rather, could say they were not forgeries – despite the fact that Rather’s 60 Minutes II story presented the documents as authenticated by an expert, with no hint that their validity was an open question.
And when the story finally came out about how Rather and his team received the documents – memos from Bush’ squadron commander expressing reservations about his notable subordinate’s efforts to avoid service – it turns out they came from a known, vehement Bush critic who could not credibly explain how he came to possess them.
It seemed CBS’ primary reason for guarding the source of its information was the knowledge that he was highly impeachable – with tons of motive for fabricating the documents and no explanation for how he got them, the network’s source was a serious weak link they seemingly could not afford to reveal.
Eventually, the internal report concluded that the story had erred by making it seem as if the expert it featured on camera had authenticated the documents, when he had only authenticated a signature on one of them. Producers also erred by not requiring the source of the documents, Texas Air National Guard Lt. Bill Burkett, to produce the person who he said provided them to him.
Here’s what Rather said about it all back then: “If I knew then what I know now – I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.”
That jibed with what the then-president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, also said in a statement then: “Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic, which is the only acceptable journalistic standard to justify using them in the report. We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.”
Now, because CBS didn’t live up to its promise to give him a high-profile spot on 60 Minutes after he was ousted from the anchor chair, Rather wants $70-million and an apology, wrapping his hurt feelings in a stand for journalistic freedom.
To state the case gently in Rather’s own unique patois: That dog won’t hunt.
Or, to cop a phrase CBS’ attorneys will surely use if this litigation ever sees a courtroom: Were you lying when you apologized for the story two years ago, or are you lying now?