WASHINGTON — You’ve heard about Dan Rather’s $70 million lawsuit against his former bosses at CBS, and you’re perplexed. I can almost hear you telling one another, just as Rather once told the nation, “We don’t know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon.”

Well, after reading the court papers (and dusting off a couple of appropriate Ratherisms), I think you can safely “bet the double-wide” that the money is less important to Rather than the sight of certain network executives “standing up like they got stuck with hat pins.” And he might well get his way.

It’s too easy to dismiss Rather’s they-done-me-wrong lawsuit, filed last week in New York, as nothing more than a bitter parting shot from a legendary broadcaster whose Emmy-winning, Peabody-winning, everything-winning career with CBS ended under a cloud. Make no mistake, he does intend to settle a few scores. But I hope the brass at CBS and its parent company, Viacom, aren’t dismissing his lawsuit as a mere tantrum. That would be a mistake.

Rather’s suit gives his account of how he came to report on the since-discontinued “60 Minutes II” that a young George W. Bush not only relied on political connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard — which allowed him to avoid serving in Vietnam — but also got special treatment while he served. Bush escaped punishment for infractions and indiscipline that could have landed a less well-connected guardsman in the brig, the story said.

The story was based in part on a batch of Nixon-era documents. When Internet bloggers noticed that the documents didn’t look as if they had been produced by Nixon-era technology — that in fact they looked as if they might have been written using Microsoft Word software — the story, and Rather’s career, started to fall apart.

After the story was questioned, Rather steadfastly defended it on the air, refusing to give an inch. In the suit, he says he was ordered to take that combative posture by Andrew Heyward, who was then president of CBS News — and who had taken personal responsibility for vetting the story before it aired, according to Rather’s account.

Rather says he was so busy with other assignments that he had little to do with reporting the story. This doesn’t fit the globetrotting-gumshoe image that network anchors like to project, but it’s the reality of TV news — high-priced talent is stretched way too thin to get bogged down in the details of every story.

The suit says that Rather still believes the documents are probably genuine. I’m not sure about that — come on, Dan, they’re “shakier than cafeteria Jell-O” — but I do think he makes a valid argument about the larger issue: The point of the story, that Bush got kid-gloves treatment while he was avoiding Vietnam in the Air National Guard, didn’t rest entirely on the disputed documents. But CBS never tried to defend the story’s central thrust. The network backed off, ordered Rather to apologize on-air, eventually fired him as anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” restricted his airtime on “60 Minutes,” and finally let his contract expire.

Rather says he offered to hire a private investigator to do more reporting on the story. CBS hired its own investigator, the suit says, but ignored his findings that the documents “were most likely authentic, and that the underlying story was certainly accurate.”

Why did CBS back off? Rather contends it was because Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, wanted to avoid being at loggerheads with the Bush administration. Stories critical of the administration, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal — which Rather broke on “60 Minutes II” — got unusual attention from nervous higher-ups, Rather’s suit says.

Anyone could use an extra $70 million, but Dan Rather needs it less than most of us; his base salary at CBS was $6 million a year. What he’s really doing with his headline-grabbing lawsuit, aside from calling out some former bosses and colleagues who he believes betrayed him, is making a point about the relationship between journalism and government — and how and why that relationship has changed.

The point is that when the next set of Pentagon Papers comes down the pike, how will our corporatized news media react? If such documents happened to be delivered into the hands of CBS News, would Redstone do what the Sulzbergers of The New York Times and the Grahams of The Washington Post did back in the early 1970s? Would he put everything he owns at risk, in service of the public’s right to know?

That hope is “as thin as November ice,” Rather would say. Or maybe “as thin as turnip soup.” Take your pick.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.