Rather in a lather
EX-CBS anchor sues net, brass for $70 milAs if CBS hadn't been rattled enough by legal flaps over shock jocks Howard Stern and Don Imus, a languishing newscast with Katie Couric as well as the controversial just-launched reality show "Kid Nation," the network has been slapped with a $70 million lawsuit by former anchor Dan Rather.
Rather — whose decadeslong career at CBS came to an inglorious halt over his role in a report criticizing President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service — on Wednesday sued CBS, Viacom, its chairman Sumner Redstone, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward.
The suit, filed in New York State Supreme Court, argues that CBS violated Rather's contract by giving him insufficient airtime on "60 Minutes" after summarily dismissing him as anchor of "CBS Evening News" in March 2005.
The suit claims that Rather was made a scapegoat by CBS and Viacom for business interests after the September 2004 airing of the controversial "60 Minutes II" report on President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. The 32-page writ said the anchor was shunned and continually kept from defending himself from attacks inside and outside CBS. Rather claims that the independent panel investigating Memogate had close ties to President Bush's father and that he was compelled to apologize for the report, even though he wasn't directly involved in putting it together.
In the filing, Rather also describes how systematically, and painfully, he was sidelined by the CBS hierarchy while at "60 Minutes." He said he was "provided with very little staff support, very few of his suggested stories were approved, editing services were denied to him and the broadcasts of the few stories he was permitted to do was delayed and then played on carefully selected evenings when low viewership was anticipated."
Rather is seeking upward of $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages. He said in a statement that he would donate most of whatever he might be awarded "to causes that will further journalistic independence."
CBS responded quickly to the lawsuit with a terse statement: "These complaints are old news, and this lawsuit is without merit."
Word of the lawsuit had spread like wildfire over the Internet and the wires by midday Wednesday; entertainment lawyers spent their afternoon readying their instant analysis for the newsies and print reporters. Comments ranged across the board, with some arguing that Rather had gotten a raw deal and others that it was nothing more than sour grapes.
For CBS, however, no one thought Rather's move would bode well.
Fordham University professor Paul Levinsohn said that in his view, Rather is justified in filing the suit and was treated shabbily by CBS. He added that the independent panel's report doesn't explicitly say that the "60 Minutes II" segment on Bush's military service was false and said Rather didn't do anything wrong.
"What CBS should have done was stick by Dan Rather," Levinsohn said. "Here's a man who has devoted his life to the organization. It seems to me that Viacom ran scared."
Former longtime CBS News correspondent Bill McLaughlin termed the whole Memogate episode grim and unseemly but added that both CBS and Rather made mistakes. McLaughlin said that it's bad timing for CBS News, which is far behind in the morning and evening ratings and doesn't need more bad news.
But McLaughlin said that filing a lawsuit probably isn't the best course for Rather.
"This is not going to help Dan's career or the image of Dan Rather as a journalist," said McLaughlin, now a professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "It's not going to help his legacy, if you like. And that's a shame."
Long Island, N.Y., employment attorney E. Christopher Murray said the case boils down to Rather's reputation and how CBS failed him instead of backing him up.
"I think CBS probably kowtowed to a certain amount of public pressure and distanced itself from him quickly," Murray said. "I would have liked them to stick to their guns a bit and defend him."
Murray believes it will be harder for CBS to settle with Rather than it was with Imus and Stern.
"There's more to it than just money," he said, adding, however, that the $70 million damages allegation are "exaggerated numbers" that will have to be proved by Rather's lawyer.
Rather's last year at the network, which petered out with softball reports on Bill Clinton's heart surgery and a profile of CNBC financial personality Jim Cramer, left the former anchor embittered and frustrated. Rather was publicly criticized by many of CBS' old guard and reportedly given little staff and an office far removed from the "60 Minutes" regulars.
He acknowledged on CNN's "Larry King Live" in 2006, after he left CBS, that he had considered filing a lawsuit against his former employer. He is scheduled to appear tonight on King's talk show to talk about the lawsuit.
Among the indignities that Rather endured during his final year at CBS was seeing his reports relegated to the sidelines of the schedule and his requests to be included on major stories ignored or turned down, the suit says. Rather arguably was the sole high-profile reporter not to be sent to New Orleans to cover Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. He volunteered, but CBS News nixed the request.
"Mr. Rather is the most experienced reporter in the United States covering hurricanes," the suit said.
But McLaughlin, the CBS veteran, doesn't buy that then-CBS News chief Heyward had persecuted him.
"Heyward had no power, as everyone knew at the time," McLaughlin said. Heyward declined comment on the suit.
Rather has labored under a much lower profile since he left CBS in 2006. His weekly investigative program, "Dan Rather Reports," airs on the little-seen HDNet; he makes occasional guest appearances on the syndicated "Chris Matthews Show" and Fox News Channel, among others.
The timing of the lawsuit couldn't be more problematic for the network.
It comes on the heels of a reported $20 million settlement to Imus, who had sued CBS over his firing in the aftermath of denigratory remarks he made on his radio show about the Rutgers women's basketball team.
As for the Stern dust-up, CBS sued the shock jock in the wake of his shift from CBS' Infinity Radio to Sirius Satellite Radio, where he reteamed with a former CBS boss, Mel Karmazin. In that settlement, Stern handed over $2 million to the network but in return received rights to most of the recorded tapes from the long-running "The Howard Stern Show."
And despite the hoopla a year ago surrounding Couric's anchorship of "CBS Evening News" (and the $15 million annual payday accorded her), the newscast remains mired in third place. Recent attempts to make the show more newsy and Couric's persona more weighty — including her recent weeklong dispatches from Iraq and Syria — have so far failed to reverse the trend, reconfirming the News division as the most obvious problem child in the CBS family.
Rather's suit could make Moonves' life even more difficult, especially because his boss, Redstone, seems to have become increasingly impatient with his executives when their companies falter. Moonves' counterpart at Viacom, Tom Freston, was summarily dismissed last year in the wake of his failure to acquire MySpace and to bolster a sagging stock price, among other supposed shortcomings.
Rather's legal team, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in New York, consists of lead lawyer Martin Gold, who won a $248 million judgment for the Cayuga Indian Nation against the state of New York over the acquisition that goes back to 1795 of the tribe's original homeland.
Gold's co-counsel, Edward Reich, recently prevailed in a dispute between his client Royal Indemnity and Silverstein Properties over insurance payouts arising from the World Trade Center's destruction.
Rather also has on board associate counsel Rebecca Hughes Parker, a 2004 law school grad who worked as a writer and producer at several New York stations, including WPIX.
Leslie Simmons in Los Angeles contributed to this report.