Dan Rather’s Last Big Scoop

A few years ago, Dan Rather’s producer told The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, “A lot of people know Dan, and nobody knows him.” Two and a half years later, not much has changed. These days, a lot of people know why Mr. Rather is doing what he is doing, and nobody knows why. The category-5 newsman continues to baffle.

At issue is Mr. Rather’s decision, announced Sept. 19, to file a lawsuit against CBS, Viacom, Les Moonves, Sumner Redstone and Andrew Heyward for their treatment of him after CBS aired a flawed report on President Bush’s National Guard duty in September 2004. In interviews since the announcement, Mr. Rather has suggested various motives. He’s talked about the importance of a free press to democracy, and, in more prosaic moments, he’s advanced the unusual complaint that CBS was paying him a full day’s salary for less than a full day’s work. But the overall portrait has been of a restless newshound chasing one more hunch. “This is a story … that has a lot of questions to it,” Mr. Rather told MSNBC on Friday morning. “And you know, we’re at the point, let’s get people under oath.”

The case might never get that far, of course. It could be tossed out in summary judgment, or Mr. Rather could be persuaded to settle with CBS, which has every incentive to avoid a public rehashing of an episode it would rather keep in its rearview mirror. But if Mr. Rather does have one more big story left in him, what might he be hoping to uncover? Through a spokesperson, Mr. Rather declined to comment. “We want to see anything that can shed light on the merits of Dan’s case,” said Rebecca Hughes Parker, one of Mr. Rather’s attorneys on the suit.

But, through conversations with some informed observers, a picture has begun to emerge:

(1) Taking It to the Top

There’s some evidence that at the time of the Memogate controversy, CBS honchos would have had particular reason to avoid alienating the White House. Viacom, the network’s parent company, had been waging a high-stakes Washington battle to overturn long-standing federal regulations that prevented one media conglomerate from owning TV stations serving more than 35 percent of the national market. The change could have been worth billions for Viacom. But after a court threw out new FCC rules that raised the limit to 45 percent, Viacom would have needed then FCC chair Michael Powell, who was appointed by President Bush, to reintroduce legislation to reverse the ruling, and increase the cap limit.

Did Mr. Redstone, Viacom’s president and CEO, ever spell out his concerns to CBS executives?

(2) Let’s Hear From the Mystery Man

Explaining the timing of his lawsuit to CNN’s Larry King, Mr. Rather said that since he was forced out, new facts had come to light—particularly about the shortcomings of the independent panel, set up by CBS in the aftermath of Memogate, and headed by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, and Louis Boccardi, the former head of The Associated Press.

“We now know that an investigator was hired by CBS—what I call a mystery man—who wasn’t even mentioned in the report,” said Mr. Rather.

Readers of this newspaper knew that long ago. In February 2005, The Observer’s Joe Hagan reported that CBS had hired a former FBI agent and Navy aviator by the name of Erik T. Rigler to dig into the source of the documents at issue. Mr. Hagan further uncovered evidence suggesting that Mr. Rigler’s investigation led him to believe that (a) he was close to uncovering the original source of the documents; (b) CBS was only interested in finding the source if it could be done before the presidential election; and (c) in all likelihood the content of the documents was accurate, even if the documents themselves were not authentic.

Sure enough, Mr. Rigler’s ultimate findings were eventually excluded from the panel’s report. And, to this day, he has remained mum on the subject. So: How close did he come to solving the mystery? What did he tell the CBS chieftains? Why did they shut him down?

Dan Rather’s Last Big Scoop