In the course of his sixty-plus-year career, Dan Rather found himself at the center of a few controversies, a result of his pursuit of journalistic excellence, or for some, a consequence of his strong character. These have ranged from being punched during the 1968 Democratic Convention or being attacked in New York in 1986 to his notorious tense interactions with President Nixon and Vice President George H. W. Bush. His hard-hitting investigative reporting resulted in lawsuits for a few of the 60 Minutes pieces he worked on, and his story on George W. Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard led to his departure from CBS and a subsequent lawsuit against CBS.
Punched at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
1968 was a year of political turbulence and civil unrest that saw the assassination of Martin Luther King and subsequent riots, the increased violence in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive, and the surge of antiwar, student, and African American protests. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago could not escape this pattern of violence and divisiveness.
After the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and with President Lyndon B. Johnson not seeking reelection, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was nominated for president amid tensions and protests of delegates who had voted for the antiwar candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy after he won 80 percent of the primary votes. This charade of a nomination would scar the Democratic Party for decades to come, despite the changes later implemented following the results of the McGovern–Fraser Commission.
Despite restrictions, the press, especially television, reported on the shouting matches among delegates inside and the indiscriminate beating and clubbing by Chicago Police and Illinois National Guardsmen of protesters outside the convention hall, reminiscent of a "police state” with “clamp-down coverage,” in the words of Walter Cronkite. The violence was also unleashed on sixty-three newsmen, thirteen of whom had their equipment deliberately damaged. As he attempted to interview a Georgia delegate being hauled out, Rather himself was punched in the stomach and knocked on the floor. As he dusted himself off and resumed his commentary, Rather explained that "It's all in a day's work."
Nixon Press Conference
From the beginning, the Nixon administration's relationship with the press was acrimonious and antagonistic. After CBS intensified its reporting on the Watergate affair and aired a groundbreaking two-part special on October 27 and 31, 1972, the network and Dan Rather himself as White House correspondent were the target of Nixon's animosity. The president used to throw acerbic lines at the journalists in order to "throw things off balance," as happened in Houston in 1974.
On March 19, 1974, the president addressed the National Association of Broadcasters in Houston. Although it was supposed to be a news conference, the audience, most them Nixon supporters, acted like it was a campaign event—applauding, cheering, and even booing, in a "serious breach of custom," as noted by Broadcasting. When Dan Rather got up and identified himself, the audience responded with cheers but also some boos. As both died down, Nixon asked "Are your running for something?" leading to more applause and laughs. After a few seconds, Rather's countered with "No Mr. President, are you?" which was also met with applause and laughs, and he moved on to his question.
This anodyne reply led to a storm of criticism, as many thought the remark was gratuitous and showed disrespect for the presidency. Letters were sent to CBS both criticizing the exchange but also defending Rather. A broadcaster even asked Richard Salant to fire Rather, something the president of CBS News categorically refused to do. Rather regretted his reply as so far as it eclipsed the question he asked: "How can the House meet its constitutional responsibilities when you, the person under investigation, are allowed to limit their access to potential evidence?"
60 Minutes Lawsuits
As 60 Minutes grew in popularity in the 1970s, so did the criticism about its style of journalism, a more aggressive one, often labeled confrontational journalism. As producers and correspondents competed and pushed for more “gotcha” journalism, 60 Minutes had to fight off numerous lawsuits, most notoriously a $120 million libel suit brought by former U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland against CBS but also against the correspondent Mike Wallace and his producer George Crile in 1984.
Some of the 60 Minutes pieces Rather worked on also led to a handful of defamation lawsuits, with most, including for the stories “Equal Justice,” “Home Sweet Home,” and “Goon Squad,” which were usually dismissed. One case, however, made it to court, and the front page of newspapers. “It’s No Accident,” produced by Steve Glauber and broadcast on December 9, 1979, investigated how dishonest lawyers, doctors, and their clients in Los Angeles worked together, as Broadcasting reported, “to defraud insurance companies through the filing of false claims for property of personal injury.” They looked specifically at Dr. Galloway, who was said to have signed a fraudulent report asserting that a woman had been given treatment she never received. Dr. Galloway said he did not sign the document and that his signature had been forged. He accused CBS of having deliberately distorted facts, of staging interviews and coaching interviewees, and of not making any effort to contact him. He sued the network for $30 million for "reckless disregard for the truth," and later also filed a complaint with the Federal Communication Commission, alleging various journalistic violations and distortions.
Superior Court Judge Bruce Geernaert authorized access to the outtakes of the show—materials gathered in preparation of the broadcast but not included in the broadcast—and also lifted the original confidentiality order. The completed and unedited version of the show was shown in the courtroom, in an unprecedented way that raised questions about the First Amendment’s protection of the press, especially the protection of a news organization’s unpublished materials. After a four-week televised trial, where Rather took the stand for three days, a jury ruled on a 10–2 vote in favor of CBS on June 7, 1983. News professionals pointed to the flaws of the 60 Minutes pieces and worried about the impact of potential litigation on investigative news, as well as the "loss of mystique" of 60 Minutes.
What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
As he walked home from his friend David Buksbaum's apartment around 10:45 pm on October 4, 1986, Dan Rather was attacked and beaten by two well-dressed men at Eighty-eighth Street and Park Avenue. The unidentified man asked Rather "Kenneth, what's the frequency." When Rather replied "I think you have the wrong guy," the man punched him in the face and knocked him on the ground. Rather ran into a lobby and the assailant, after asking the question again, beat and kicked him. The attacker fled when the building's doorman and superintendent came to Rather's aid. The fifty-four-year-old newsman was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital for the jaw and back injuries he sustained. Rather was casually dressed with striped shirt, blue jeans, and eyeglasses, and people surmised it might have been a case of mistaken identity.
As the months passed and the attacker was not apprehended, many started doubting Rather's story, despite the fact that the doorman confirmed it. As Broadcasting reported "the incident became the subject of endless cocktail-circuit and tabloid guessing. Much of the talk was derisive and some questioned Rather's credibility and sanity." The attackers' line "What's the frequency, Kenneth," inspired a song from the band R.E.M.
The mystery was solved in 1997 when William Tager fatally shot an NBC stagehand outside of Rockefeller Center in 1994. While in prison for manslaughter, Tager talked about the attack on Rather to a forensic specialist, Dr. Park Dietz, who was hired by prosecutors to evaluate him. Tager was convinced that the media were transmitting messages to his brain. During his chance encounter with Rather years earlier, he had demanded to know what frequency was being used to beam messages.
For many, the 1987 “Miami Walk-out”—six minutes of unprecedented black screen on CBS—exemplified Rather’s unpredictability and his arrogance. Early reports in the New York Times for example, recount how on September 11, 1987, Rather and the CBS team were in Miami covering the visit of Pope John Paul II. As they were preparing to anchor the first of two feeds of the CBS Evening News from there, news came from CBS that a tennis match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was running longer than expected, and that the Evening News would have to be shortened. An angered Rather called the president of CBS News, Howard Stringer, to protest and warn that if the Evening News was not on at 6:30, he would leave, and CBS Sports should fill in until 7:00. He did indeed leave shortly after 6:30, when CBS Sports did not yield to the News. When they finally did at 6:32, Rather wasn’t there and the network was black, to the dismay of many viewers and affiliates who complained to CBS. For some, Rather purposefully “walked-out,” angered that a tennis match preempted the news; to some, his absence had the “characteristics of a snit,” and he “flat-out blew it,” leaving affiliates in the lurch.
For those directly involved, as Evening News producer Tom Bettag was, things were, of course, more complicated, and the incident had more to do with Rather's passion for the integrity of the Evening News. When the anchorman talked to Howard Stringer, the conversation was about making sure that the Evening News would not be truncated. If CBS Sports was not able to turn to the News at 6:30, they should then fill in the time until a complete Evening News could be shown at 7:00. According to Bettag, communication was difficult with the network and when Rather realized he would not anchor the news at 6:30, he got up and walk out to call Stringer. Tennis ended abruptly, and CBS Sports unexpectedly switched to the News team, which scrambled to get Rather back to his chair, hook his microphone, and get ready to present the news. Despite discussion of disciplinary actions, the network was supportive of Rather. Stringer stated that “we’re all embarrassed.” For Gene F. Jankowski, president of CBS Broadcast Group, Rather was “the consummate professional,” and CBS Chief Executive Officer Lawrence A. Tisch was certain that in no way could he picture “Dan allowing the network to go black." Rather released a statement stating that “I’ve always believed the audience should be able to count on seeing the news at its regular scheduled time and in its entirety. That was at issue Friday. But I would never—nor would anyone at CBS —even think of deliberately allowing the network to go black.”
1988 Bush Interview
During the 1980 heated primary campaign, Dan Rather interviewed for 60 Minutes GOP candidate George H. W. Bush about his chance of clinching the nomination away from frontrunner Ronald Reagan, his experience, and his image of being too nice. In January 1988, the two men met as Bush was running for president for what became Rather's most controversial interview. The Bush campaign was in trouble after a Newsweek headline that read "Fighting the Wimp Factor" and as questions abounded about the candidate's involvement in the Iran-Contra affair (a set of secret arrangements in the 1980s to provide funds to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels from profits gained by selling arms to Iran, which was the subject to an arms embargo).
To this day, two versions of this interview exist. The Bush campaign claimed that CBS had pitched the interview as a routine candidate profile, but began with a feature focusing exclusively on the Iran-Contra affair and Bush's involvement; the interview was therefore misleading, an "ambush" against the vice president. CBS argued they had talked about the focus on Iran-Contra and that the Bush campaign insisted on a live interview (something the networks never do) as a way of controlling and derailing the interview. During the aggressive exchange, Bush’s consultant Roger Ailes prompted the vice president with cue cards off-camera, designed to demonstrate his toughness. After the interview, Bush boasted "The bastard didn't lay a glove on me!"
Reactions were virulent: for many, the interview confirmed Rather's liberal, anti-Republican bias; for others, it was yet another example of Bush not answering questions about his responsibility in the Iran-Contra affair. Calls to the network criticized and praised both men's performances. Rather talked about the "heated exchange" the following day, explaining that "trying to ask honest questions and being persistent about answers is part of the reporter's job." The following August, the anchorman interviewed both Mr. and Mrs. Bush at the Republican National Convention where, according to the Washington Post, "everything was cuddly-cordial." President Bush, however, never granted a full-length interview to the anchor of the CBS Evening News.
For the Record
On September 8, 2004, Dan Rather reported on 60 Minutes II about then-President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War. It was produced by Mary Mapes, who a few months previously had broken the Abu Ghraib story with Dana Roberson. The report was quickly attacked by bloggers, who questioned the authenticity of a series of documents known as the Killian documents and who focused on the spacing, fonts, and superscript. Rather and his team stood by the story, arguing that the bloggers and the media who picked up their critiques were deflecting away from the questions the reports asked. Rather’s team viewed the memos more as a piece of corroborative evidence and continued to believe in the veracity of the story—which was never questioned itself. CBS nevertheless asked Rather to apologize for the story on air, as the memos could not be authenticated and Bill Burkett, the man who had provided the memos, admitted to have misled CBS about the provenance of the documents.
Howard Kurtz summarized in the Washington Post the different reactions in the media to the story, concluding that "One thing is clear: The controversy over the '60 Minutes' documents has now overshadowed the questions they purport to raise about George W. Bush's military service." Although they disagreed about the story itself, Rather's fellow network anchors, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, stood by their rival, arguing, in the words of Jennings, that "I don't think you ever judge a man by one event in his career." For some, Rather had been victim of his own hard-hitting style or, as the New Yorker called it, "competitiveness and scoopaholism." An article in the Columbia Journalism Review by Corey Pein detailed how the coverage of the story and its aftermath by the media was itself heavily flawed.
On November 24, 2004, Rather announced he would step down as anchor the following March 9, 2005, exactly twenty-four years after he succeeded Walter Cronkite in 1981.
CBS appointed a panel led by Republican Dick Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania and United States Attorney General under George H. W. Bush, and Louis Boccardi, retired president and chief executive officer and former executive editor of the Associated Press. Released in January 5, 2005, their report concluded that CBS rushed to make inadequately verified allegations public and it was slow in responding to criticism. The panel, however, was unable to conclude whether the documents were forgeries or not, nor did it conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content. Like the story itself, the report and its conclusions were divisive. James C. Goodale review of the report in the New York Review of Books prompted a published exchange with Dick Thornburgh and Lou Boccardi. In the New Yorker, Ken Auletta wrote a long and comprehensive piece that summarized Dan Rather's career and the recent controversy.
CBS asked Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervised CBS News primetime programs, 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard, and Howard's deputy, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy to resign. The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was terminated. Dan Rather, who had announced he would retire as anchor in March 2005, continued working for 60 Minutes Wednesday until the show was canceled in May 2005. He then worked for 60 Minutes until he left CBS in June 2006, as his contract, contrary to what had been verbally agreed upon, was not renewed. In September 2007, he sued CBS for breach of contract and various tort theories, hoping that the discovery would shed light on what had really happened at CBS. The case was eventually dismissed, but Dan Rather had moved on to HDNet TV, now AXS TV. There he started a weekly news magazine, Dan Rather Reports, for which he was nominated for and won numerous awards.
Rather has stood by the story. In a 2007 interview with Larry King, Rather argued that the review panel was “a set-up,” and pointed to the fact that “nobody to this day has proved these documents were fraudulent. . . . The story was true.” The journalist also talked about the story in his 2012 memoir, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, and claimed that internal CBS documents that came to light during his lawsuit show how Viacom lobbyist Carol Melton, under pressure from GOP House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, urged Heyward to retract the Bush/TexANG story. In Rather's words, Melton "made it clear that Blunt was speaking for an even more powerful constituency—the White House.” Rather was especially critical of Leslie Moonves, who was then chairman and CEO of CBS, explaining that CBS should not have retracted the story "but that was the way that Blunt and the White House wanted it, and Moonves chose to oblige." His 2012 memoir led a new wave of articles that revisited the 60 Minutes II piece. Most of them, like the extensive Texas Monthly article in 2012, concluded that the story was and remained far more complex than expected.
In November 2005, producer Mary Mapes published a book about her career and the National Guard story and its aftermath. The book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, was turned into a film directed by James Vanderbilt and starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes in 2015.
In September 2007, fifteen months after leaving CBS, Dan Rather filed a lawsuit against the network, its corporate parents, and three of his former superiors—CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward. The suit claimed that CBS broke Rather's contract, committed fraud, tarnished his reputation, and restricted his ability to seek work, all in an effort to contain the political fallout over the National Guard story. The anchor was seeking $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.
The lawsuit revolved around two main points: it first argued that CBS mishandled the aftermath of the National Guard story and committed fraud by commissioning a “biased” and incomplete investigation of the flawed National Guard broadcast in order to “pacify the White House,” and in the process unfairly tarnished Rather's reputation. Unlike previous major controversial stories, like the 1982 libel case General Westmoreland filed against CBS, the network did not appoint an internal investigation but instead brought in two outsiders, Dick Thornburgh, former attorney general during the administration of the elder President Bush, and Louis Boccardi, former head of the Associated Press; two men who had had a close relationship to President George H. W. Bush. Their report concluded that CBS rushed to make inadequately verified allegations public and was slow in responding to criticism. The panel, however, was unable to conclude whether the documents were forgeries or not, nor did it conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content. Contrary to what was made public, however, the panel never truly investigated the Texas National Guard story itself. While it found out there were in fact typewriters with the very font and "raised t-h" that were denounced, in other words that the basis for attacking the authenticity of these documents did not hold up, the panel did not mention any of this.
The motive for such actions, the suit claims, was that Redstone and Viacom, CBS’s parent company in 2004, were trying to to curry favor with the Bush administration and protect business interests in Washington. In 2004, Viacom was actively lobbying for a relaxing of media-ownership laws in order to increase the number of stations it could own and acquire. The White House, however, was still unhappy with Rather and CBS after he ran the Abu Ghraib prison story, damaging the Bush administration's reputation. Rather was turned into a scapegoat in order to placate the administration. He was forced to apologize for the piece and ordered to stop reporting on it.
Rather asserted secondly that the network violated his contract by not giving him sufficient airtime on 60 Minutes, which he joined after stepping down as anchor in March 2005. Since 1979, Rather’s contracts with CBS always included an airtime provision, which guaranteed him a considerable amount of time in the spotlight. This was understood as dually beneficial: airtime is vital for television personalities, and, as Rather became the face and the personification of CBS, more airtime bolstered CBS’s news credibility. Rather’s lawyer, Martin Gold, explains how his team argued that CBS broke its fiduciary duty to Rather—an extra-contractual, symbiotic relationship based on loyalty and trust—by willfully keeping him of the air. The suit alleged that the network minimized Rather's role in the news division, providing him with "few assignments, little staff, very little airtime." While it had been agreed that he would be a “full-time correspondent,” Rather had only eight segments broadcast during the 2005–06 season, half that of other correspondents, and these stories were aired in the worst slots, opposite to the Super Bowl or on Christmas and New Year’s. In addition, requests to visit Iraq and Afghanistan and to go to the Gulf Coast to cover Hurricane Katrina were denied. In the summer of 2006, contrary to what had been verbally agreed, CBS did not renew Rather's contract, and the journalist left the network.
CBS considered the suit “old news” and declined to publicly comment it. 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager stated Rather had been given an enormous budget and three producers to work with, but that he simply did not produce high-quality material.
The press was mostly critical of the lawsuit, calling Rather’s claim gaudy and often depicting him as a bitter and angry man, engaged in a quixotic cause and seeking revenge. But Rather wanted to get to the bottom of what happened and find out how the company he called his home for forty years could treat him that way. He pledged to donate much of the money he might win to the cause of investigative reporting and protecting newsrooms against corporate influence.
As the lawsuit made its way through the courts, a New York Supreme Court threw out parts of it but allowed several claims to be pursued, including breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty claims. During discovery—the procedure when each party can obtain evidence from the other party through interrogations, request the production of documents, and request admissions and depositions—Rather’s team was able to unearth internal CBS memorandums showing that “network executives used Republican operatives to vet the names of potential members of a panel that had been billed as independent.” Linda Mason, who reported to Andrew Heyward, was getting updates from panel investigators, although CBS News claimed it stayed out of the investigation. More damming for CBS, e-mails included in court filings shows that one Viacom lobbyist, Carol Melton, urged Heyward and CBS communications chief Gil Schwartz to officially retract the story in order to satisfy then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
By November 2008, Rather’s lawyers felt confident that they would win on summary judgment or at a trial. CBS then took the case up to the appellate division, the Intermediate Appellate Court of New York State, with its five assigned justices. Led by two very smart, highly conservative justices, Catterson and McGuire, the court ruled that a player paid provision governed the entire case—essentially, that the network had fulfilled its obligationsby paying Rather the agreed salary. The lawsuit was dismissed in September 2009. Rather nevertheless felt vindicated by what emerged during discovery: evidence that CBS worked hard to please the White House in order to achieve corporate advantage.