Mixed Media: In Rather v. CBS outcome, there are no winners

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All Dan Rather wanted to do was save American journalism from the corrupting influences of business and government. Too bad he tried to hitch that noble cause to his own lost cause.

With his $70 million lawsuit, Rather sought to prove that his corporate bosses at CBS and Viacom (VIA) were under the thumb of politicians in Washington. Since filing it, he's been on a one-man crusade against the "self-censorship" of big media organizations and the creeping timidity of the journalists who work there. His message to his beleaguered colleagues: Courage.

And, for a while, it looked like his message was getting through. After a shaky start in court, the former anchor began to pile up small victories, dragging into the light evidence that CBS executives had, in fact, debated among themselves how best to curry favor with Republicans in power and in the media in a way that was distinctly unworthy of the Tiffany Network's journalistic heritage.

Who knows what might've happened had Rather been able to parlay his minor procedural triumphs into something bigger? Could the result have been a post-Watergate-like self-examination by the American press, a reevaluation of the role of the profit motive in journalism? Maybe. Alas, getting some mud on the other guy isn't enough if your own case is weak -- and on Tuesday, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court decided that Rather's case was indeed weak and dismissed the whole thing.

The result: Rather, who'd been hoping to rehabilitate his reputation with a big win, instead looks worse than ever, and is out $5 million in legal fees to boot. CBS finally gets to move on, but critics will always remember how willing the network was to kiss Ann Coulter's bony butt in exchange for a little right-wing love. And George Bush, for anyone who's keeping track, will be remembered for a lot worse than cutting corners on his National Guard service.
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