Former news anchor files $70 million lawsuit

Three years after a flawed report on President Bush’s Vietnam-era military service put a virtual end to Dan Rather’s career at CBS News, the former anchor unleashed a long-threatened suit against his former employer.

Rather, 75, has filed a $70 million suit against CBS Corp. and three of his former superiors alleging that he was made a scapegoat in the affair, which “cost him significant financial loss and seriously damaged his reputation.” The suit further alleges that they violated his contract by not giving him meaningful work on “60 Minutes” after he was forced to step down as anchor of “Evening News” in 2005.

The suit, filed Wednesday in Gotham, also names CEO Leslie Moonves, chairman Sumner Redstone and former CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward, alleging that the three never intended to live up to his contract and were more interested in restoring the reputation of CBS at his expense and currying favor with the Bush Administration.

CBS spokesman Dana McClintock said “these complaints are old news, and this lawsuit is without merit.”

Suit comes as CBS News is attempting to distance itself from the Rather era and to build former “Today” anchor Katie Couric into the new face of the news division. The first year in those efforts has been a struggle, as Couric has lost audience compared with her predecessor, Bob Schieffer, who took over from Rather in 2005.

CBS’ attempt to relaunch Couric included a high-profile trip to the Middle East to evaluate the state of the administration’s military surge in Iraq. She concluded the surge had been at least a partial success, inflaming some of the administration’s critics.

CBS’ efforts will be complicated as Rather takes his case public. He’s scheduled to give a live interview on the suit to CNN’s Larry King today.

While the Eye just dispatched a $50 million wrongful termination suit by settling with Don Imus, sources close to Rather said he’s not going to settle. That means dozens of CBS executives could be deposed, dredging up a low point in CBS News history it is trying to forget.

In a news release, Rather’s law firm said he intends to donate any judgment in his favor “to causes that will further journalistic independence.”

On the eve of the ill-fated story in 2004, Rather and producer Mary Mapes were on a professional high, having broken the story of abuse in Abu Ghraib prison, arguably the biggest scoop of the year.

Mapes told CBS that she was going to secure an interview with a former Texas politico who said he pulled strings to get Bush into the National Guard in the ’70s and memos from his commanding officer that said he did not fulfill his commitment.

CBS aired the story but, after withering public criticism, admitted that it could not verify the authenticity of the critical documents. A former secretary said she did not type the docs but said information they contained was true.

CBS hired a private investigator to go to Texas to try to authenticate the documents and commissioned an independent panel to review the story and processes at CBS News. In the wake of the report, three CBS News execs were asked to resign and Mapes was fired.

Rather alleges that the panel itself was biased because it was co-chaired by Richard Thornburgh, former U.S. attorney general under the first President Bush.

In his suit, Rather diminished his role in reporting the story, calling himself a “narrator” and maintain that Heyward oversaw all fact-checking of the piece.

But CBS insiders dispute the notion that Rather’s role was hands-off, noting that Rather quibbled over the script and conducted all the interviews, including those with the document expert who judged the documents to be authentic.

After the report, Rather said he tried to remain a good corporate citizen in hopes that his contract, which was set to expire in 2006, would be renewed and that he could continue on as a correspondent for “60 Minutes.”

In so doing, his complaint alleges, he didn’t respond to criticism from CBS employees like Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney and Walter Cronkite, who was a member of the CBS board of directors.

He said he agreed to read an apology on the air written by CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz even though he believed he had nothing to apologize for.

The anchor, who made his name covering 1961’s Hurricane Carla in Texas, was denied a role in covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and on “60 Minutes,” he alleges he was given “very little staff support” and “very few of his suggested stories were approved.”

After he resigned in 2006, Rather joined the Mark Cuban-based HDNet to host weekly news program “Dan Rather Reports.”

In his suit, he seeks $20 million in lost compensation and $50 million in punitive damages.

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