The disparity underscores not only two vastly different media eras, but informs a final example of Rather’s misreading of his place in the equation. During those awkward twelve days following the 60 Minutes II piece, Rather reported on the fallout from his own story on the Evening News, announcing with a kind of stoic defiance that CBS would stand behind it, as it was based on “a preponderance of evidence.” It is no surprise that Rather helped write the script for many of these shows; the theme is straight from Murrow. Once, during one of our interviews, Rather had mentioned a scene from Good Night, and Good Luck that spoke to his decision to defend the Bush piece even when the walls of his universe were crumbling. It concerned a story on Milo Radulovich, an Air Force reserve officer facing dismissal because of his father’s alleged Communist sympathies. Shortly before the story was to air, an Air Force general and a lieutenant colonel came to visit Fred Friendly, the creator and producer of See It Now, and pressured him not to run it. “He was cold steel to them,” Rather said. “He listened, but he didn’t give them an edge. ‘Let’s not have any misunderstanding,’ he said. ‘We’re doing this piece. Murrow believes in it, you’re not going to talk us out of it.’ ” Rather paused, and then said, “In the old way of doing things, management protected the talent.”
The gas-can story came and went on HDNet; in terms of buzz, a Google News search turns up little more than a few items on an anti-Wal-Mart blog that mentioned the manufacturer’s nonchalant reaction and the fact that Wal-Mart seems to have no plans to pull the product from its shelves. In its finished form, the piece seems to go on and on in an anesthetized state, suggesting the burden of seriousness amid the overwhelming din of digital media. Meanwhile, in September, New York Supreme Court Judge Ira Gammerman dismissed Rather’s fraud claims while allowing his breach-of-contract claim to continue. Thus truncated, even if a trial occurs, it remains to be seen the extent to which Rather will be able to introduce his larger ideological agenda about Viacom’s meddling, or even to rehash certain details of the Bush story based on the new evidence Rather claims he has. Gammerman would likely have to create an exceptionally large evidentiary berth for Rather to broach all the First Amendment questions he says motivated the suit in the first place. His lawyers, though, maintain that CBS misrepresented the agenda of the Thornburgh-Boccardi investigation, which they call “a public administration gimmick to appease the Bush administration and throw Rather under the bus,” and coerced Rather into not continuing to defend the story even though company officials knew there was more to it. Both could theoretically qualify as breaches of fiduciary duty—a claim likely to survive until the suit’s bitter end—based on the expectation of mutual trust that Rather and CBS had developed over the years.
Last July, I was in court when Judge Gammerman issued perhaps the most favorable decision for Rather since his suit began, allowing his attorneys to depose nearly all of the major actors in the case. He alluded to a November trial date, suggesting a certain build-up of momentum. Rather attended this proceeding, entering the courtroom after the endless line of attorneys. He seemed cool and dispassionate, reacting more to Gammerman’s contrarian angst than to the forward or backward sway of argument, which included an unsuccessful attempt by his attorney, Martin Gold, to have released to the media ten documents already produced in depositions that Gold said were “matters of national importance.” A few days later, I received the second of two late-night telephone calls from Rather, and in talking about developments in the case, he passed along a gossip trail that seemed, to him, significant. “I hear a Hollywood producer is thinking about making a movie about all of this. I’m not surprised. You know, there have already been two recent movies about the inner workings of CBS. They both got nominated for an Oscar, and one made $70 million.