The media swoon left Flagler disenchanted. “All they wanted were sound bites,” said Villanueva, “but this was a far more serious issue than guys dancing in women’s underwear.” Flagler sought a more sober reporter to purchase exclusive rights to the library’s crown jewels: a pair of videos in which Wal-Mart employees joked about the gas cans’ propensity to blow up. Enter Rather, whose program had earlier used the Flagler tapes to produce a report, “Wal-Mart Goes to Washington,” on the retailer’s linking of donations by store managers to its corporate pac to a safety-net initiative for its lowest-paid employees. I asked Villanueva, who is fifty, why she chose to place her company’s best prospect for financial rebirth in the hands of an aging newsman who had been exiled from the mainstream for what some consider dereliction of duty. “I can’t remember a time without Dan Rather being on TV,” she said. “Back in the day, there were only three stations. Those were the icons. When things got tough in America, those were the people you trusted to deliver. He brings a lot of credibility—almost like family. In today’s world, there’s so much choice, so much spin. And I don’t associate spin with Dan Rather.” Then she got to a larger point. “We want this story to get lots of exposure. He is Dan Rather, and he told us, once this story gets done, maybe he can go on Larry King or the Today show and generate some publicity.”

It was interesting to hear Villanueva—someone unconcerned with the parochial fixations of Washington and Manhattan media cliques—home in on “exposure” and “publicity.” In her calculated approach to professional salvation, she seemed to suggest an alternate, apolitical idea of Rather, based not on all the attempts to “understand” or vilify him (for example, Villanueva knew next to nothing about Rather’s lawsuit), but on something more intriguing: the way, perhaps, that his omnipresence on television in the latter half of the twentieth century branded his visage upon the American psyche. Since 1979, each of Rather’s contracts with CBS included an airtime provision, guaranteeing Rather a considerable amount of prime on-air spots, which was understood as dually beneficial: it increased Rather’s exposure, the lifeblood of a television personality, while bolstering CBS News’s credibility, since the anchor was its personification. As went the fortunes of Dan Rather, in other words, went the fortunes of CBS News. Indeed, the rulings thus far in Rather’s lawsuit leave open the possibility that CBS owes Rather financial damages for breaking its fiduciary duty to him—an extra-contractual, symbiotic relationship based on loyalty and trust. This may help explain why CBS let twelve days pass after the 60 Minutes II report on Bush aired before backtracking from its support of Rather and saying it couldn’t guarantee the authenticity of the documents that indicated Bush got preferential treatment. “Rather was us,” a longtime colleague of Rather’s said to me. “We wanted to see him succeed, and we weren’t into self-immolation.”

It’s worth noting that in the wake of General Westmoreland’s 1982 libel case against CBS, the network assigned one of its own executive producers, Burton Benjamin, to investigate the alleged journalistic transgressions. In 2004, however, the network tapped two outsiders—former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, the former head of The Associated Press—to investigate the Bush story. Their report is published on the Internet for all to see, while CBS had literally begged the presiding judge in the Westmoreland case to not release Benjamin’s findings, calling them “oppressive.”

Jesse Sunenblick is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.