Getting Rather Messy

In light of Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS/Viacom, I'm going to coin a Rather-esque saying: Writing about this story while working for CBS Interactive is tougher than playing Operation while traveling down a bumpy Lubbock road.

But here goes anyway.

By now we've all read and/or heard that former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather has filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS, as revealed in yesterday's New York Times:

Dan Rather, whose career at CBS News ground to an inglorious end 15 months ago over his role in an unsubstantiated report questioning President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service, filed a $70 million lawsuit this afternoon against the network, its corporate parent and three of his former superiors.

Mr. Rather, 75, asserts that the network violated his contract by giving him insufficient airtime on "60 Minutes II" after forcing him to step down as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" in March 2005. He also contends that the network committed fraud by commissioning a "biased" and incomplete investigation of the flawed Guard broadcast and, in the process, "seriously damaged his reputation."

According to the lawsuit, Rather's complaints revolve not only around the investigation but also the fallout surrounding the infamous "60 Minutes II" story which looked into President Bush's national guard duty (uncreatively nicknamed "Memogate"). He also charges that retribution caused him to lose the Hurricane Katrina story assignment despite being "the most experienced reporter in the United States in covering hurricanes" and that there was a disagreement over the definition of "full-time."

Much is being made of the fact that the case focuses on current and former CBS executives like Les Moonves, Sumner Redstone, Andrew Heyward. But Rather is going beyond that. Deeper inside the lawsuit itself, Rather's legal team also takes on the public faces of CBS News itself:

CBS had knowledge of the derogatory statements concerning Mr. Rather made by its employees, including those made by Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney and others, and by permitting these statements to continue, significantly contributed to the barrage of bad press Mr. Rather faced following the broadcast.
(Hat tip: Mika Brzezinski)

Without getting enmeshed in the legalities/technicalities of his case and re-fighting old media battles, it's tough to understand the rationale behind the lawsuit. The damage over the document controversy has already been done, and public perception on both sides of the issue (and there are at least two sides on this one) has hardened to a point where very few minds are going to be changed by a lengthy and vicious legal battle. If Rather's core goal is to "restore his reputation," as the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz noted in a fantastic summation this morning, then pointing out how far removed he was from the journalistic process seems like a counterproductive way to rehang his star in the journalistic sky.

As noted in this space last week, studies have shown that when you highlight a concept or belief in order to set the record straight, you frequently serve only to reinforce the original thought. So while it's going to be a wait-and-see thing as far as how many steps forward this lawsuit advances towards its stated goal, the initial claim itself takes America's news audience – and Dan Rather -- back a few steps.

(Note: Public Eye is not a part of CBS News, but CBS Interactive.)