Dan Rather claims scaled back
EmptyUPDATED 7:53 p.m. PT April 10, 2008
A Manhattan judge on Thursday dealt a blow to the $70 million lawsuit against CBS by former anchor Dan Rather.
It was a rare bit of good news this week for the embattled news division, which had to deflect news reports about a possible partnership with CNN and speculation that Rather's successor, Katie Couric, might be on her way out by year's end.
There was little smoke in the CBS-CNN partnership, but a Wall Street Journal report indicated what many have long suspected: Couric not only could depart "CBS Evening News" before her contract is up but also leave CBS entirely.
CBS denied this as well, though there's little doubt that the $15 million-a-year investment in Couric hasn't worked the way the network planned. While CBS officials have been supportive in public, there was a feeling inside the network halls even before this week that Couric has until the end of the year to improve her ratings.
In yet another tough break for Couric this week, her first stint as a presidential debate moderator is now in limbo.
A week ago, CBS offered prime TV real estate following "60 Minutes" for the April 27 debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ahead of the May 6 North Carolina primary. Although Clinton accepted immediately, Obama has held back.
As for the Rather lawsuit, New York State Supreme Court Judge Ira Gammerman on Thursday granted CBS' request to dismiss several counts, including those against CBS chairman Sumner Redstone, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward.
The suit, filed in September, claimed that CBS News treated Rather unfairly and bowed to political pressure after a flawed September 2004 broadcast on the Vietnam War-era military service of President Bush. Rather also claimed that he had been forced to apologize and was ostracized because CBS wanted to curry favor with the Bush administration.
In dismissing several of the claims, Gammerman said Rather wasn't seeking damages based only on injury to his reputation. Gammerman also said that the former anchor didn't identify prospective business relations that CBS and its executives interfered with, as Rather had claimed.
The dismissal means that the sensational parts of the claims won't be aired in court. Rather, in fact, has to pay the court costs of Redstone, Moonves and Heyward. The judge left standing, for now, the question of whether CBS fulfilled its contract obligations after Rather's departure from the anchor chair. Rather said he wasn't given prime air time as promised on "60 Minutes II" and, after that show's cancellation, "60 Minutes."
"It's hard to see how all the over-the-top allegations about conspiracy now have any legs given this decision," CBS lead counsel Jim Quinn said Thursday. He termed the remaining issues "garden variety contract" questions on which he believed the court would rule in CBS' favor.
However, Rather's lead attorney, Martin Gold, said the "entire essence" of the lawsuit remains. Rather couldn't be reached for comment.
"The court has permitted discovery and a trial of all of the factual issues that form the basis of Mr. Rather's lawsuit, including his $70 million claim for compensatory and punitive damages," Gold said. "The defendants' statement that all that is left is a 'garden variety contract dispute' is simply inaccurate."
There's no firm date for the next step in court or whether Rather's legal team plans to appeal.