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Rather’s Revenge

“I totally saw one of Britney’s boobs once, too.” “Um, I see Kid Rock’s boobs right now.”

In the last year, the media’s nattering nabobs have tended to paint former CBS News anchor Dan Rather as an unhinged Don Quixote for his $70 million lawsuit against his former network. But in recent weeks, his suit — centering on his treatment by CBS after his controversial 2004 report on Bush’s National Guard service — has unearthed a raft of CBS internal documents that suggest Rather isn’t so crazy after all.

Rather has long claimed that an independent investigation paid for by CBS to assess his flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report wasn’t actually independent at all, but heavily influenced by CBS executives and effectively a corporate cleanup operation meant to placate the White House.

The new documents paint a complicated picture, but the short version is this: CBS sought advice from Republican operatives in its search for a panelist who would placate right-wing ire against the network; and the president of CBS News at the time, Andrew Heyward, may have had foreknowledge of, and input on, the investigation even though he was himself supposedly under scrutiny.

Bottom line: an investigation billed as independent perhaps wasn’t. For Rather’s lawyers, that means everything that followed — the firing of Rather’s colleagues and Rather’s marginalization as a network star — was corrupt and fraudulent.

Today’s Times report by Jacques Steinberg describes newly released CBS memos from 2004 showing the network did in fact use a political litmus test to pick a key panelist for its independent panel. After considering a laundry list of GOP pundits, executives, lobbyists, and lawyers (including Fox News chief Roger Ailes), CBS News chose former attorney general Dick Thornburgh to co-chair the panel:

Mr. Thornburgh, who served as attorney general for both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, was named a panelist by CBS, but only after a CBS lobbyist “did some other testing,” in which she was told, according to [CBS News vice president Linda] Mason’s notes, “T comes back with high marks from G.O.P.”

Another Republican operative who didn’t make the cut was described by Mason as less than ideal because he wouldn’t “mollify the right.”

In his deposition, former CBS News president Andrew Heyward seemed to justify the bias, telling Rather’s lawyers that “CBS News, fairly or unfairly, had a reputation for liberal bias,” and “the harshest scrutiny was obviously going to come from the right.” (The other panelist was Louis Boccardi, the former head of the Associated Press.) Be that as it may, Heyward himself was a subject of the investigation because he’d been directly involved in the 60 Minutes Wednesday report and its aftermath. Therefore he wasn’t supposed to have any input on the “independent” panel report other than his own testimony. But included in the new discovery released by Rather’s lawyers is an e-mail between Andrew Heyward and CBS News vice-president Linda Mason that suggests Heyward was being kept abreast of the internal machinations of the investigation and offering input almost two weeks before he was supposed to know what was in it. As Felix Gillette of the Observer reported last week:

In the e-mail back-and-forth, Mr. Heyward and Ms. Mason appear to be engaging in a bit of preemptive damage control. “Even if they had to expand the summary, we should consider this option if the big doc is too destructive,” wrote Mr. Heyward. “[A]nd I wouldn’t hesitate to put that back on them — that they exceeded the mandate or violated our instruction to leave the organism alive after the cancer is removed.”

Clearly, Heyward didn’t consider himself part of the “cancer” to be removed by the panel, which was evidently acting on “our instruction.” It appears that this e-mail contradicts statements by CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, when he wrote in 2005: “I think it’s important to note, in the Panel’s own words, that ‘CBS News did not have any input or influence with respect to the findings of the Panel, other than to commit itself at the outset to make this Report public.’ This Panel was truly independent, and remains so.”

A lawyer for CBS News notes in the Times that the network feels that the case has been a net win for them, because the justice presiding over the case has thrown out Rather’s most dramatic claim, that CBS’s actions were “fraud.” But if more and more documents like these keep emerging, the public-relations damage to CBS’ reputation could be worse than the $70 million.

Related: Dan Rather’s Last Big Story Is Himself [NYM]

Rather’s Revenge