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Dan Rather's New Courage: A Hefty Lawsuit Against CBS

Dan Rather's $70 million lawsuit against CBS reawakens the scandal over his departure and the crass politics of big business journalism.
 
 
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Gee, just when I was all excited about Wednesday's big premiere of the new CBS cultural triumph Kid Nation , my old friend Dan Rather went and blew my whole evening out of the water by filing a massive lawsuit against the company.
Here we go again.

It has been three years since we aired our much-maligned story on President Bush's National Guard service and reaped a whirlwind of right-wing outrage and talk radio retaliation. That part of the assault on our story was not unexpected. In September 2004, anyone who had the audacity to even ask impertinent questions about the president was certain to be figuratively kicked in the head by the usual suspects.

What was different in our case was the brand new and bruising power of the conservative blogosphere, particularly the extremists among them. They formed a tightly knit community of keyboard assault artists who saw themselves as avenging angels of the right, determined to root out and decimate anything they believed to be disruptive to their worldview.

To them, the fact that the president wimped out on his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War -- and then covered it up -- was no big deal. Our having the temerity to say it on national TV was unforgivable and we had to be destroyed. They organized, with the help of longtime well-connected Republican activists, and began their assault.

Actually, we had done a straightforward, well-substantiated story. We presented former Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes in his first ever interview saying that he had pulled strings to get the future president into the National Guard after a Bush family friend requested help in keeping the kid out of Vietnam.

And we showed for the first time a cache of documents allegedly written by Bush's former commander. The documents supported a mountain of other evidence that young Bush had dodged his duty and not been punished. They did not in any way diverge from the information in the sketchy pieces of the president's official record made available by the White House or the National Guard. In fact, to the few people who had gone to the trouble of examining the Bush record, these papers filled in some of the blanks.

We reported that since these documents were copies, not originals, they could not be fully authenticated, at least not in the legal sense. They could not be subjected to tests to determine the age of the paper or the ink. We did get corroboration on the content and support from a couple of longtime document analysts saying they saw nothing indicating that the memos were not real.

Instantly, the far right blogosphere bully boys pronounced themselves experts on document analysis, and began attacking the form and font in the memos. They screamed objections that ultimately proved to have no basis in fact. But they captured the argument. They dominated the discussion by churning out gigabytes of mind-numbing internet dissertations about the typeface in the memos, focusing on the curl at the end of the "a," the dip on the top of the "t," the spacing, the superscript, which typewriters were used in the military in 1972.

It was a deceptive approach, and it worked.

These critics blathered on about everything but the content. They knew they would lose that argument, so they didn't raise it. They focused on the most obscure, most difficult to decipher element of the story and dove in, attacking CBS, Dan Rather, me, the story and the horse we rode in on -- without respite, relentlessly, for days.

Soon, traditional media began repeating some of the claims and joining in the attack on the story. They didn't do any real work on the substance of the story; they just wanted to talk about typeface. And that was an empty, unsolvable argument that did nothing but serve the purposes of the Bush administration, which had been fanning the flames of the controversy and hoping to avoid any hard questions.

The fracas scared the bejeezus out of the CBS corporate types who were completely unaccustomed to the rough and tumble interaction of the blog world. Frankly, the foaming-at-the-mouth response scared me, too. These people WERE scary. Who wants to see her picture online accompanied by digital catcalls demanding that she be "taken out"? And that was one of the milder posts.

But the truly chilling part of this entire saga is what happened next. Though our story had raised entirely appropriate questions about the president's military record, though there had been substantiation for everything we reported, though this was an issue certainly worth discussing in wartime, all that was lost in the melee that followed.

Because of the angry conservative outcry, the corporation we worked for chose to walk away from an uncomfortable controversy rather than stick up for its reporters.

This is not a new fight. Journalism has always pissed people off. It is supposed to. It should be provocative. It should ask hard questions of everyone on every side. It shouldn't play favorites and it shouldn't fear honest criticism.

In a democracy, journalism cannot fear bullies or pull its punches because somebody powerful might get uncomfortable. That's when we all lose.

In retrospect, I think the real problem with this story is that it ran three years too early. Imagine that a report emerged today saying that President Bush and his enablers had unusual problems finding the most basic records, that key documents had disappeared from official files, that he and his supporters dissembled when asked direct questions. Yawn. The country wouldn't bat a collective eye. No one would be attacked for reporting that. That stuff is old hat now.

But back then in the face of an orchestrated attack, Viacom blinked. The company insisted that Dan Rather issue an on-air apology. We were investigated by a so-called independent panel that wasn't independent and wasn't really a panel. It was a cluster of securities fraud attorneys with no journalistic experience fronted by a couple of figureheads with strong ties to the Bush family.

In reaction to the Rather lawsuit being filed, I read that Republican former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, one of the two panel leaders, harrumphed that his investigation "speaks for itself." It certainly does. I saw his stellar work firsthand.

Thornburgh and his minions went through all my business emails and at one point during an excruciating, all day session, he personally chose to grill me on an email in which I had used a bad word. I had referred to something as "horseshit" and I had meant it. "Why had I chosen to use THAT word?" he wanted to know. "Why did I feel it was it necessary to use profanity in an email?" Good Lord. No adult should ever be subjected to that kind of ridiculous ritual. What horseshit.

Oops. Sorry, Mr. Attorney General.

In the end, although the Thornburgh panel did clearly discover that the unwashed wretches in newsrooms sometimes use foul language, the intrepid group could not find evidence of bias in our work, could not find malicious intent and could not find that the documents were false. They found that we had "rushed" the story, that we tried too hard to get the story, that we suffered from "myopic zeal."

Our myopic zeal was what gave us the energy and tenacity at CBS News to break the Abu Ghraib story and every other decent, difficult story I have done in my professional life. I think journalism today could use a little more real zeal.

It still sickens me that good people at CBS lost their jobs over this. It breaks my heart that people with a political ax to grind interfered with a story at a major network news outlet.

And I personally pray to God that somebody someday will get some real answers on where George W. Bush was for more than a year while other Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam. That we have no answers this long after he has taken office and taken us into two wars should disturb every American.

But I'm afraid this entire episode just encapsulates what has happened to journalism in general in this country. It has become corporatized, trivialized and castrated.

I know that filing a suit had to be a tough decision for Dan to make. But I'm not sure he had a choice. This episode deserves to be examined again and this may be the only way to accomplish that. Besides, a lawsuit also gives him that delicious power of discovery. Who knows what might shake loose?

In the meantime, this is what I do know.

Dan Rather is a legendary reporter who has spent decades doing his job like few others -- while bullets flew past his head, or while he was tied to a tree in a hurricane, or when he was chasing down big stories, sometimes on foot. He helped guide the country through communal catastrophes like the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and 9/11. He has paid his dues.

And at 75 years old, Rather still has more reportorial testosterone than the entire employee roster at FOX News. It is a tremendous injustice to journalism that he has to go to court to be treated with respect.

Courage, buddy. Courage to us all.

Mary Mapes worked in television news for 25 years, the last 16 years at CBS News, where she received numerous awards, including the coveted Peabody.

 
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