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Dan Rather has gone from Walter Cronkite’s heir apparent to the news industry’s Britney Spears.
In a move that has many media watchers shaking their heads in disbelief, Rather has filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS News claiming the network “coerced” him into apologizing for a widely discredited story on President Bush for which he now says he did little more than provide on-air narration.
With this week’s lawsuit, Rather has officially jumped the couch, according to some of his former colleagues.
“I think he’s gone off the deep end,” Josh Howard, former executive producer of 60 Minutes II told the Washington Post. “He seems to be saying he was just the narrator… He did every interview. He worked the sources over the phone. He was there in the room with the so-called document experts. He argued over every line in the script. It’s laughable.”
The 2004 story, which claimed that Bush had dodged service while in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, was based on a series of purported memos that right-wing bloggers immediately challenged as forgeries. More mainstream media watchers soon followed. An independent panel later said CBS “failed miserably” in authenticating the documents.
Rather himself initially defended the memos saying that those attacking their authenticity were largely “partisan political operatives.” After the panel released its conclusions, Rather made an on-air apology in which he said:
I no longer have the confidence in these documents that would allow us to continue vouching for them journalistically. I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers. That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where-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.
But he later recanted in a 2006 radio interview, rejecting claims that the story was false: “In fact, it is true. And any reasonable person looking for facts knows that what we reported in the story was absolutely true.” As to the documents, Rather said, “I believe them to be real. I wouldn’t have put them on the air if I hadn’t… To this day, no one has ever proven that the documents are not what they purported to be.”
CBS disagreed, issuing a statement indicating that “CBS News stands by the report the independent panel issued on this matter and to this day, no one has been able to authenticate the documents in question.”
That was the end of it, an agreement to disagree, until Rather filed the lawsuit this week.
“It’s got to be about this lasting sense of hurt and pride,” Rome Hartman, former executive producer of CBS Evening News told the Washington Post. “I was flabbergasted. I just don’t get it.”
The story will undoubtedly be bandied about the media and the Web in the weeks or months to come. Right wing media critics maintain that Rather has a long history of liberal bias in his news coverage and that the Memogate story, coming close to the 2004 election, was meant to bolster the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry.
Meanwhile, left wing bloggers have marshaled to the former anchor’s defense, claiming among other things that he has been “swiftboated” by the right. That is a view apparently shared by Rather, who according to the New York Times, claims in the suit that the network bowed to “pressure from ‘the right wing'” and made him a “scapegoat” in an attempt to “pacify the White House.”
The lawsuit calls to mind Hillary Clinton’s claims of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” — a phrase sure to make a return during the 2008 election cycle.