Rather#8217;s demise at CBS an embarrassment

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 20, 2007

Former anchorman Dan Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its former parent company Wednesday, claiming they made him a scapegoat for a 2004 story about President Bush’s military service that came under fire.

Rather names Viacom Chairman Summer Redstone, CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward in the suit, which seeks $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.

The story in question was a much-publicized report on President Bush’s service in the National Guard. It indicated he did not follow orders, skirted some of his duties and that a commander felt pressured to exaggerate the quality of his performance.

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The report was blasted when four documents were questioned for their authenticity. The documents could not be authenticated, but Rather stood by the story and continues to stand by the story.

A CBS review of the story concluded the story was neither fair nor accurate. Several executives were fired and Rather was bumped from the anchor’s chair. He was labeled - incorrectly - as a journalist whose sole purpose was to follow an agenda to discredit the president.

And, of course, he was labeled a liberal by critics in the heat of the presidential campaign. The White House and the GOP put pressure on CBS, which fell down like a house of cards.

Rather’s saga goes beyond the story in question. It goes beyond what responsibility he had - or didn’t have - in authenticating the documents. It goes beyond the fallout that essentially sent him out in disgrace.

It was unfair treatment for one of broadcast journalism’s giants. Even in the worst case scenario, CBS should have stood up to the pressure, and - more importantly - stood up for one the most iconic journalists in CBS history.

A misconception about journalists is that they’re driven by their political persuasion. Yes, some journalists are liberal, some are conservative, just like people in the public are liberal or conservative.

But a journalist’s reputation rests with the ability to work hard and treat people fairly. Sometimes we make mistakes, as all professionals do, only ours are out in the public for people to see.

What didn’t get told enough about Dan Rather was his unwavering conviction to hold the government and presidents accountable, all presidents. He was relentless in his reporting on unfavorable issues related to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, but that was conveniently forgotten by his critics in 2004.

Rather was a man who built his reputation as a reporter and took those skills to the anchor chair. He is credited with the concept of having anchors travel to locations where stories were happening. He is a good journalist who deserved better and he might send a $70 million message to CBS and its former parent company that there is a price to pay for bowing to political pressure.

A CBS spokesman indicated Wednesday that Rather’s suit is without merit.

We’ll see.

Rick Greene is the managing editor of The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached at (740) 532-1441 or by e-mail at rick.greene@irontontribune.com