Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why Would Dan Rather, At 75, Sue CBS?

My first thought, when I heard that the former CBS news anchor, Dan Rather, was suing CBS and its corporate heads for $70 million, was that lawsuits can be a very difficult and uncertain endeavor, and why, at 75, would Rather undertake one?

But when I talked to a few others in the news business, they made the point to me that there are real issues which should be examined in the ouster of Rather from the post of news anchor after so many years in the job. They predicted that the depositions and testimony, if the case gets to the trial stage, might be most revealing about relationships between the Bush Administration and the news network. Also, the lawsuit could tell us a lot more about whether these vaunted news anchors are powerful in their own right, or just front men reading broadcasts which are largely the responsibilities of producers scarcely known to the public.

If the suit really uncovers these things, then I doubt whether CBS will want it to go to trial. They might try to settle with Rather instead of letting all the dirty laundry be aired.

It's always a difficult situation when a longtime employee, in the eyes of his employers, has outlived his usefulness. And old age can obviously be a major factor in this. At the L.A. Times, where I worked so long, staffers reaching into their 60s were not infrequently treated with scant consideration at the end of their careers. The New York Times for a long time had a mandatory retirement age of 65, averting some such contretemps, although even the NYT had a hard and embarrassing time getting rid of A.M. Rosenthal, its former executive editor, who in his last years with the paper had become a vitriolic columnist.

"Old age," General de Gaulle once remarked, "is a ship wreck," and it's particularly sad when someone gets to his or her 70s and doesn't know when declining acuity and energy mandates retirement. On the other hand, some L.A. Times writers, like Jack Smith, Jim Murray and recently-retired sportswriter Shav Glick, contribute a great deal well beyond retirement age, and Shirley Povich wrote into his 90s for the Washington Post. Cartoonists, such as Herb Block at the Post, and Paul Conrad, retired from the L.A. Times but still drawing, often do great work in their 80s.

Rather continues to appear on television outside CBS and, in fact, will be interviewed on the Larry King show on CNN tonight about his lawsuit against CBS. (Watching the King interview Thursday night, I felt Rather made a fairly strong case for the suit. King was a little tougher on Rather than he is on most guests, and I wondered whether somebody at CNN had suggested this approach. Then, they cut Rather off at 40 minutes and went on to something else. It would have been appropriate to allow Rather to answer some viewer questions, rather than confine the viewer response to one e-mail).

But a retired editor at the Times reminded me that CNN too had a rather controversial retirement when it got rid of its longtime prize foreign correspondent, Peter Arnett.

Arnett had become controversial for some of his Iraq coverage, and Rather had long been the bugaboo of the right wing for his critical attitude toward Republicans.

One of the questions that will apparently be examined in the Rather lawsuit, if it goes ahead, is whether CBS did cave in to the Bush Administration, Karl Rove and so forth, when it maneuvered Rather into an apology for a broadcast about President Bush's record in the Texas Air National Guard, then out of his anchor's position, and then gave him little to do with the CBS show "60 Minutes," to which he had been farmed out contractually as a "full time" correspondent.

The New York Times story on the lawsuit this morning, by Jacques Steinberg, said that Rather had declined to say whether he had used private investigators to prepare the suit. But nonetheless it seems certain that in discovery proceedings Rather's attorneys would demand e-mails and other communications at the top levels of CBS pertaining to the Rather dismissal.

The Bush people flared up at the broadcast about the President's Guard service as a young man, claiming it was based on spurious documents, and so forth. Yet it does seem clear that Mr. Bush evaded the possibility he would have to serve in Vietnam by joining the Guard, and, on the face of it, it would not be surprising if he had pulled strings to get into the safe refuge which was the Guard. On the other hand, with some experience in the Army reserve, I was not surprised that months would pass, when the young Bush moved from one state to another, before the Guard caught up with him on coming to training meetings. The bureaucracy in the military frequently takes a long time to reassign people when they move.

Rather is now taking the position he had little to do with preparing the report, and merely read parts of it on the air as a front man. That too could be rigorously examined in the depositions regarding the suits.

There might be a lot of embarrassing revelations here, especially since, more and more, suggestions are being made that the news media in general was too subservient to the Bush Administration in the runup to the Iraq war and in the first years of the war. Just at retired L.A. Times editorial page editorAnthony Day's memorial service last Saturday, the pastor emeritus of All Saint's Episcopal Church in Pasadena, John Rivas, suggested forcefully that the media had sold out to the Administration.

In that sense, the Rather lawsuit could fuel a witch hunt as to just who in the media was responsible for "caving in" to the Administration.

On the other hand, lawsuits can take many unexpected twists and turns. It is not unlikely that CBS has material that could embarrass Rather. Certainly, it would do his longtime reputation as a crusading television reporter no good to have it revealed for a certainty that he was just a front man.

The L.A. Times, by the way, in light of the serious issues involved, was smart this morning in running its story, by Matea Gold, out on Page 1 of the news section, and the New York Times dropped the ball in running the story in its Business section. The most interesting news should be placed on Page 1.

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For the third time this month, Al-Qaeda has released a tape, this one of Osama bin Laden calling for a jihadist uprising against the Pakistani regime of Pervez Musharraf.

With all these tapes, I just wonder whether the focus of the hunt for bin Laden should not revolve around Al Jazeera, and the means by which his recordings come inro its possession to be used. Many criminals' whereabouts are ultimately traced through communications they have somehow released publicly, and it would be wonderful if U.S. intelligence could find bin Laden through careful explorations of how his venomous words are reaching the public. Jazeera executatives may know where bin Laden is, and, if they did, it would be worthwhile kidnapping them and questioning them until they revealed his whereabouts.

Fundamentalist Islam is not black magic. There should be some way of finding, and destroying or capturing, this bloodthirsty guttersnipe.

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