09.16.09

Erasing Dan Rather

The epic legal battle between CBS and its estranged ex-anchorman has taken a nasty new turn. Rather's camp accuses the network of holding footage of him hostage.

The titanic legal struggle between Dan Rather and CBS seems to get pettier by the day.

The trouble started with Rather’s much-criticized, ultimately career-ending 60 Minutes II report on President George W. Bush’s military record, just before the 2004 election. It resulted in his 2007 breach-of-contract and fraud suit against the network and its parent company, Viacom. But as the $70 million suit heads for possible trial in January—with yet another preliminary hearing scheduled next Monday in New York State Supreme Court—the tone has grown increasingly bitter, and the shrapnel is flying thick and fast.

Cronkite, who quit the anchor chair in 1981 of his own accord, subsequently came to believe, according to many, that Rather kept him off the air. A CBS insider described the drama surrounding Cronkite’s memorial service as being “like Brutus complaining that he wanted to be invited to Caesar’s funeral—and in this case he actually was.”

The latest contretemps involve such momentous issues as: whether the forced-out anchorman, who held the job for 24 years, would be welcomed at the recent funeral and memorial service for his legendary predecessor, Walter Cronkite; whether the 77-year-old Rather was sufficiently represented in a CBS News special celebrating Cronkite’s life and times, or in photos displayed during the memorial service at Avery Fisher Hall; whether an independent filmmaker hoping to make a Rather documentary would be granted access to CBS News archival footage; and whether CBS, in Orwellian style, is trying to make Rather a non-person and erase him from the corporate memory.

Dan Rather reports on Iran’s weapons procurement. Several of these questions, floated by the Rather camp, are open to varied interpretations depending on who’s answering them—the journalistic equivalent of a Rorschach ink blot. The CBS loyalists reject them as unfounded. But as with nearly everything regarding the congenitally controversial Rather—who anchors Dan Rather Reports on Mark Cuban’s HDNet and occasionally writes for The Daily Beast—the reality is a tangled web woven by tangled people.

A case in point: Was CBS, which supervised the guest lists, willing to provide Rather with tickets to the two Cronkite events? It’s understandable that CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, a key defendant in the lawsuit along with Executive Chairman Sumner Redstone, had no wish to run into his antagonist at either venue. But after a thorough internal discussion, top executives reached the conclusion that it would look bad if they tried to bar Rather. So they hit upon a clever solution: If, and only if, Rather asked CBS for tickets—a circumstance about as likely as ice-fishing in Hell—he’d get them.

"Tickets were made available to Dan both to the Cronkite funeral and to the memorial,” a CBS spokesman told me, “and he was seated in appropriate places in both events, although we can understand why he was disappointed with his position out of the spotlight." (It turns out that tickets were not issued for the funeral, which anyone could have attended.)

If that isn’t snarky enough, a “CBS insider” offered up a quote alluding to Rather’s famously tense history with Cronkite, who quit the anchor chair in 1981 of his own accord but subsequently came to believe, according to many, that Rather kept him off the air. "This is like Brutus complaining that he wanted to be invited to Caesar's funeral—and in this case he actually was."

Rather declined to comment for this story. But his attendance at the Cronkite funeral clearly had gotten under someone’s skin. A few weeks after the service at St. Bartholomew’s Church, the New York Post’s Page Six column ran an item headlined “Dan Rather’s Shameless Ways.” It read: “Dan Rather has some nerve. Although he helped force Walter Cronkite out of the CBS anchor chair in 1981, and then kept the popular newsman off the air to avoid unfavorable comparisons, he had the chutzpah to attend Cronkite's funeral.” It looked to many like a high-level CBS plant, never mind that company execs are shocked, shocked that anyone would think so. What’s more, several CBS partisans stressed to me this week that “the Cronkite family absolutely despises Dan Rather.”

So how did this proverbial skunk at the garden party obtain his tickets to the events?

“I knew he was probably not going to be invited by CBS, and I thought that Dan would appreciate it, so I reached out to him,” Chip Cronkite, Walter’s son, told me. “I made an effort to call Dan because I figured he might want to come and he might want to be invited.” At last week’s memorial service, Rather ended up sitting in the fourth row, off to the side.

The younger Cronkite, a documentary filmmaker, told me it is “absolutely false” that his family dislikes Rather. “He’s always been nice to me,” he said. “I don’t know the history of the lawsuit, and I don’t know the history of my dad’s relationship with him—it’s not something we talked about.” He added: “I watch Dan’s show on HDNet and I like it.”

In another display of apparent pique, CBS refused Rather’s request to purchase archival material from his four decades at the network (although he does, per his severance agreement, have access to the video and photos that were used in a one-hour special on his career that aired when he stopped anchoring The CBS Evening News in 2005). What’s more, CBS recently denied archival material to an independent filmmaker exploring the possibility of a Rather documentary.

According to Jeff Ballabon, CBS News senior vice president for communications: “The documentarian asked CBS only to provide video of Dan Rather's ‘misstatements and embarrassing moments.’ CBS declined that request, as we likely would decline any similar request aimed at embarrassing our talent.”

But filmmaker Fritz Mitchell’s account is very much at odds with Ballabon’s version: “We didn’t say that. We said the documentary would include his entire career, warts and all, and the majority of the footage we were going to be looking for was Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination and stuff like that.” Mitchell said he was told that “CBS’s position was they were in the middle of a lawsuit, and it was just not a good time to play that game, and give out footage of Dan, but we never really found out the reasons why.”

Of course it’s possible that a different, as yet unidentified, documentarian asked for the so-called Rather “blooper reel.” But Ballabon—a former Republican political operative who in 2004 helped organize Jewish supporters for Bush’s reelection campaign—was unable to shed further light by deadline.

Meanwhile, CBS has not been shy about publicly trashing its onetime star, even to the point of questioning his sanity. "It's like he is in some paranoid nightmare where everybody is out to get him. We're all witnessing the poor guy thrashing around, tormented,” 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager told the Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold last month. Gold noted that “the network made available several executives who spoke acidly about the anchor whose work they once touted.”

For such a high-stakes battle, such tactics seem surprisingly low. But Rather’s friends say he is at peace with his decision to pursue the lawsuit, which so far has cost him an estimated $5 million in out-of-pocket expenses for pre-trial discovery and depositions, (including of Moonves). “Dan’s interest is in getting the facts,” Rather’s lead attorney, Martin Gold, told me. “He’s a very determined person. He’s not easily dissuaded. And CBS or anybody else who thinks they’re going to scare him by testing his resolve—they don’t know him.”

Lloyd Grove is Editor at Large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.