NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather sued the network on Wednesday for $70 million, saying CBS violated his contract by depriving him of air time and made him a scapegoat to “pacify the White House.”
Rather was removed as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” after 24 years in March 2005 after a scandal over a September 8, 2004, report on President George W. Bush’s military record that he presented in the middle of the presidential race between the Republican Bush and Democrat John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran.
He kept reporting for the weekly news program “60 Minutes,” but was dumped by CBS in June 2006 after 44 years with the network. He said they offered him no assignments.
The lawsuit by the 75-year-old Texan was filed in State Supreme Court against CBS, CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, Viacom Inc, Viacom Chief Executive Sumner Redstone and Andrew Heyward, former head of CBS News. It claims CBS cost him “significant financial loss and seriously damaged his reputation.”
“Central to defendants’ plan to pacify the White House was to offer Mr. Rather as the public face of the story, and as a scapegoat for CBS management’s bungling of the entire episode,” the lawsuit said.
“CBS management coerced Mr. Rather into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalistic errors in the broadcast,” it said. “Mr. Rather was not responsible for any such errors.”
CBS said in a statement, “These complaints are old news and this lawsuit is without merit.”
The story, suggesting Bush received preferential treatment during his Vietnam War service in the Texas Air National Guard, was partly based on documents CBS later acknowledged could not be authenticated. It retracted the report 12 days later.
CBS News fired the producer of the segment and three other employees after an independent panel concluded that “myopic zeal” led the network to disregard basic principles of journalism in rushing the piece on the air.
Rather initially kept his job but stepped down as anchor in March 2005, six months after the scandal broke.
“The defendants sacrificed Mr. Rather’s journalistic integrity by falsely blaming him for alleged errors in the broadcast,” the lawsuit said. “CBS thereafter minimized his staff, support, air time and public exposure, contrary to the terms of the contract it had signed with Mr. Rather.”
In August CBS settled a termination dispute with fired radio shock jock Don Imus. He was fired in April after referring to a mostly black university women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” a racial slur that generated a storm of controversy and led CBS Radio to cancel his morning show.
Rather now produces an hour-long news program, “Dan Rather Reports,” for cable channel HDNet — available only to Americans with high-definition television sets.
In an interview last November, Rather said of his new job, “I consider this going into the wilderness.”
But he was reserved when asked about being dumped by CBS after decades of service that saw him cover everything from President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974 to the Iraq war.
“I was proud to work for them every day I was there, and I thought I would finish my career there,” he said of CBS.
But in June he said the CBS Evening News had been dumbed down and “tarted up,” comments CBS called a sexist swipe at his successor, Katie Couric, who has struggled to turn around a ratings decline.
Rather’s lawyer Martin Gold said if he wins the lawsuit he will donate much of the proceeds to the cause of promoting an independent press.
Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Kenneth Li in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles