CBS declined to comment for this story, beyond releasing a statement saying the company is “mystified and saddened by the baseless and self-serving allegations and distortions of fact raised in [Rather’s] lawsuit.” So that leaves us with Rather’s version of what happened next. “The fact is, they caved,” he says. “They crumbled.” When the documents were savaged by right-wing bloggers and press critics, CBS News found it couldn’t prove their authenticity and backed down. And so, at the time, did Rather. After twelve days of scrambling to defend his story, Rather went on the air and said, “If I knew then what I know now, I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question.”
Rather now claims the apology was “coerced” by CBS News president Andrew Heyward. Rather was still clinging to the story with both hands when Heyward asked Rather’s agent of 42 years, Richard Leibner, to mentally prepare Rather to let go. Later, the stunned anchor stood next to Heyward while his boss typed the script on a computer.
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” said Rather, slamming his fist on the dashboard. “You can’t do this,” he told Heyward. According to Rather, Heyward coldly replied, “It’s done.”
Rather went along with the company line—partly because he was shell-shocked, partly out of loyalty to the network where he had spent his entire career, and partly as an act of self-preservation. Rather believed that Heyward and Moonves would help him recover from the debacle and support his continuing efforts to prove the documents were real. “I love CBS News,” Rather says. “It was painful to me that we were going through this. And they’re saying, ‘Listen, we’re all in this together. You may not agree with everything we do, but [we’re] committed to your coming out of this as well as you can.’ ”
Two days after the apology, Rather’s faith in his employers was shaken. CBS announced it was commissioning an independent investigation into the flaws of his 60 Minutes Wednesday segment, to be co-chaired by former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh, a Bush family friend and onetime Nixon confidant. Rather felt CBS was handing him over to his enemies for execution. When Heyward informed him that Thornburgh would lead the investigation, Rather was riding in a car in Manhattan with a CBS security guard assigned to him after he’d been mobbed by paparazzi. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” Rather told him, slamming his fist on the dashboard. “This is un-fucking-believable! You couldn’t have picked anybody who is worse.”
Rather says he told Heyward, “‘You can’t do this.’ And he very coldly said, ‘It’s done.’”
Already a chronic insomniac, Rather barely slept now, arriving at his office at 7 a.m. to make frantic calls to anyone and everyone, desperate to glue the story back together. After the 6:30 broadcast of the Evening News, he would stay on the set for hours going over the details. “He was crazed,” says a friend. “He looked exhausted.”
Rather and Mapes were told to cease their efforts to prove the Guard story, at which point Rather tried to hire his own private eye to continue digging. Heyward told him to stand down, that CBS would hire one instead. Rather says he was promised a copy of the P.I.’s report, although he never received one. (CBS claims its investigator, Erik Rigler, whom Rather now calls the “mystery man,” never found anything.)
At first, Rather refused to deal with the commission. “No good can come from this,” he remembers thinking. “It stenches of fix.” But again Heyward—along with Rather’s family and his agent—persuaded him to cooperate for the good of CBS. Rather and Heyward had known each other since the early eighties, when Rather plucked Heyward from the local New York affiliate to work at the network. Heyward promised they would get through the ordeal together. “He’d gone corporate long before this,” says Rather. “Nevertheless, I believed him.”
When he describes his eight-hour interrogation before the commission, Rather seems to relive the moment. He can visualize the seating chart of his inquisitors, pointing to exactly where Thornburgh sat. Former Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi was the only journalist on the panel, outnumbered by lawyers, Rather says, with two from Thornburgh’s legal team doing the bulk of the questioning. Thornburgh sat silent and coiled, waiting to interject “like a cobra strikes.”
“He’d get up right in your face: ‘Mr. Rather, you mean to tell me that after all of this you’d do a story with Mary Mapes?’ ‘Yessir, that’s exactly what I said.’ And then he’d shake his head,” says Rather. “I thought he was a total ass. He tried cheap Perry Mason tactics.”
As the commission’s investigation dragged on through the fall, Rather began to piece together his conspiracy theory. “As soon as we began to see that the company was wobbling,” says Rather, “I said to myself, ‘I think Redstone said to Moonves, Make this disappear. This is killing us in Washington.’” Now, everywhere he looked, he saw signs of his company’s caving to pressure from the Bush administration. Moonves told investors at a Goldman Sachs conference that the Thornburgh-Boccardi report would be delayed until “after the election, so it won’t affect what is going on.” In a Time magazine interview before the election, Redstone said his reaction to Rather’s report was one of “severe distress” and announced his preference of Bush for president: “I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.” It was an unusual political declaration from a media CEO. At the time, the Republican-controlled FCC had levied heavy fines against Viacom for shock jock Howard Stern’s on-air infractions, just as Viacom was lobbying the FCC for more media deregulation. Rather now suspects that Viacom’s top lobbyist in Washington, Carol Melton, suggested Dick Thornburgh for the panel to appease Republicans. (Soon after, Melton hired an outside lobbying firm to strengthen Viacom’s relationship with the GOP.)
Rather believes Redstone wanted him out because he was costing the company too much political capital. As evidence, he refers me to a paragraph buried deep in Edward Klein’s recent book about Katie Couric. Klein reports that Redstone declared in a board meeting, “I want anyone associated with that guy to go,” referring to Rather, because he was jeopardizing the company’s lobbying efforts on a major corporate-tax bill passing through the Republican-controlled Congress. Klein, a controversial journalist whose reporting on Hillary Clinton was pretty much discredited in 2006, insists the anecdote came from somebody “inside the room.” But another person who was present says Redstone never said that, although there were extensive conversations about Rather at Viacom’s board meetings. Subsequently, Viacom did lose its bid for tax breaks that could have saved it hundreds of millions of dollars.