On Wednesday, former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather filed a $70-million lawsuit against the network where he spent 44 years, its parent company, Viacom, and his former bosses Les Moonves, Andrew Heyward and Sumner Redstone. Rather alleges "egregious conduct" constituting "breach of contract, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, prima facie tort, tortious interference with contract and interference with prospective economic advantage, that have cost his significant financial loss and seriously damaged his reputation" in a 32-page complaint that by now most media-watchers have eagerly gobbled up.
The response seemed near-universal: "WHY?" I say near-universal because my response was, "Oh, here it is."
It seemed — and seems — perfectly natural to me for Rather to have sued CBS. Look at where he is now, compared to where he would have been but for the National Guard story (aka "Memogate" — and, aka, "Rathergate"). He would have been an esteemed anchor emeritus, a wise and learned voice on matters of national importance, an expert to be called on during elections and crises and times of national need, an authority to be brought out for the really big stories, the kind that you know are big because, hell, look, they brought out Dan Rather! Or maybe, despite plans for an amicable handover in March 2006 on his 25th-anniversary (complaint, pg. 11) he wouldn't be an emeritus at all; after all, CBS had no succession plan in place and at the time the piece aired on September 8, 2004, the world of network news was about to be thrown into a tizzy. Who knows. If not for that report, Rather might still be anchor today — the dean of American anchors, the ultimate guy in the chair — dare we say, the Voice of God.
Instead, three years after the airing of that story and just over a year since his time at CBS sputtered to an end, Dan Rather is none of those things. He is an anchor for HDNet, with an audience a fraction of what he used to command (make that a really, really small fraction). Last November, on election night, he commented for The Daily Show. Funny, but it was over in a blink. And it ain't CBS (it ain't even CNN). Rather took that job at HDNet in what appeared to be high hopes and great enthusiasm, with all sorts of you-can't-knock-me-down bravado, shilling for it on Letterman and the like, proselytizing for this exciting new era in TV viewing, thrilled to be joining forces with a maverick like Mark Cuban, a maverick himself, a pioneer really, forging a brave new path in reporting just like he always did, on the goddamned story just like he always was.
That's how it seemed, anyway. Hopeful and optimistic, and now...what? He's on HDNet. Big whoop. Meanwhile, the top dog who yanked the carpet out from under him — Les Moonves — went and wrote a giant check for Katie Couric and now look at his precious newscast: Tanking in the ratings, tarted up and dumbed down. I don't know about any of you, but that would drive me freaking nuts, and I haven't spent a quarter-century having a love affair with the red light of the camera.
So for those who wonder "why now?" to me that makes sense. Wednesday night on NBC Nightly News, Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute, wondered "Why now? What's new about this - what will we learn that we didn't already know?" Well, to paraphrase Dr. Frank N. Furter to Janet Weiss, he didn't file this lawsuit for you. Jeff Bercovici declared "This suit should have been filed three years ago or not at all" which is all well and good to sweepingly declare, except it doesn't take into account the reality of the situation, which is that things obviously looked and felt different at that time, and hindsight is 20/20. (Also: CBS News' response that the "complaints are old news" doesn't really speak to ye olde Statute of Limitations).
Why now? Who knows — maybe enough time has passed, maybe he saw how Imus did and figured he had a good shot, maybe he planned it deliberately to happen just in time for the News & Documentary Emmys on Monday — at which he just happens to be a presenter. So, incidentally, is Katie Couric.
Is it rational? Opinion seems to be...no. Not so much, to revive the single worst mistake you ever made and try to explain it by saying that it wasn't really yours. Whoever counseled him on that strategy was an idiot — if he had thrown his lot in with the other fired staffers, admitting responsibility but not all the responsibility, seeing as Heyward had signed off on the piece and Moonves had all but exculpated Heyward. The scapegoat charge might have rung more true if others below Rather — the guy who said those words on screen — had not been fired while Rather kept his job.
But that doesn't mean that Rather doesn't have a point — lots of them. He was buried at 60 Minutes. His contract did stipulate airtime, promotion and attention. The system failed, not just him (cf. Heyward's culpability above, per David Blum and Jay Rosen). I raise this as a point of legality — the suit is not without merit, even if the part about Rather not being responsible for what he innocently didn't know is hooey. That part is journalistic hooey; here, it just doesn't help his case, which otherwise seems prima facie okay regarding breach of contract and damage to his reputation.
Which is why CBS will settle — that and to avoid discovery. Just as Dan Rather is crazy to want to refocus on this terrible episode, CBS is smart enough to avoid it. The last thing they need is an investigation into the shoddy editorial practices that went into this report — who needs that dragged through the public square again? (Especially when another anchor recently copped to not being responsible for the words under her byline.) Rather may dream of the spoils of discovery, but that's the last thing CBS wants. It won't be $70 million — $20 compensatory, $50 punitive! — , but it'll be something, and maybe that will be enough vindication. It's not for the money — he'll donate that, I'm sure, as pledged — but for the acknowledgment that it wasn't just his fault. At the very least, he's dragging Moonves and Heyward through the mud here, too (and who knows, maybe setting a precedent for Katie Couric to eventually follow, making Moonves pay for that "Nope. I really don't").
But the battle here isn't for money, it's for Rather's reputation, and his legacy — both of which were forever compromised on that day in September 2004 and which have been eroding ever since. To me, this lawsuit seems like an all-or-nothing bid to get it back. To some, that might say courage. To others, it might say crazy. To Dan Rather, it might just seem like the last chance he's got.