Daniel I. Rather, will you please go now?
Rather’s tenure parallels network news’ journey into irrelevance.
Dan, let me be the one guy rude enough to tell you that you won’t be missed. Well, perhaps it’s not just me–Walter Cronkite has chosen this moment to slide the shiv between the ribs of his successor.
But can you blame Cronkite? Conservatives may never forgive him for doing his part to ensure that the U.S. left the South Vietnamese people to the tender mercies of the Viet Cong, but when Uncle Walt left the anchor desk in 1981, the CBS Evening News was still in healthy shape, and a major news force. Rather may be bragging on Letterman about his 24 years, but the only institutions that have had a rougher past two-and-a-half decades than CBS News have been the Soviet Union, Egyptian opposition movements, and disco.
If you’re reading NRO, or the blogs, chances are you don’t watch the CBS Evening News or many network evening-news programs. In fact, probably the only time you watched it in recent memory was during Memogate, just to watch what increasingly implausible defense the CBS Evening News was going to toss out.
The network evening news has become a half-hour analgesic, chopped into snippets divided by commercials for over-the-counter cold medication, prescription drugs, or cure-alls for gastrointestinal distress, for those who want a cranky 73-year-old to tell them what to think.
The evening news is designed for the attention span of an overcaffeinated ferret, with the standard story hitting a predictable rhythm: B-roll footage of an “ordinary American” doing something ordinary–getting her kids ready for school or cooking dinner. Then the inevitable “but.” “BUT–like millions of Americans, Mrs. Smith says her health insurance isn’t covering enough of her expenses.”
Cut to correspondent standing in front of Capitol dome. “Congress is considering legislation about this issue, but Republicans and Democrats disagree.” A one-sentence sound bite of a Democrat saying, “We need this program.” A several-word sound bite of a Republican saying, “But how are we going to pay for it?” Cut to Heritage Foundation type, identified as “spokesman for conservative activist group,” saying some massive new government program isn’t necessary. Cut to some left-of-center type identified as “Harvard professor and health policy expert,” saying, yes, this massive new government program is necessary.
Cut to Mrs. Smith, saying how hard it is to make ends meet, and how she thinks the program would help her a lot. Then the closer: “Whether Mrs. Smith gets what she needs, or whether her children Brittney and Skyler have to go without those benefits, only time will tell. Firstname Lastname, Network Evening News, Washington.” Elapsed time: Just over two minutes. Repeat another ten times. Close with “Courage.”
Anyone who actually wants to know more about the news is reading a newspaper, reading magazines, reading blogs, and watching the cable networks. For all the mockery that cable-news debate shows get from established news folks, it’s worth noting that they have at least two people of differing opinions talk about the same subject for five or six minute segments. And instead of trying to encapsulate a four or five-minute interview in one or two sentences, the talking heads get to speak (and sometimes shout) in strings of sentences. They get to make points and challenge each other’s arguments. And the viewers get it straight from the source, instead of summarized by a correspondent.
The network-news defenders ask, “What about recent events that have brought brief spikes in audiences?” Let’s stifle our hurrahs. If al Qaeda crashing airliners into skyscrapers is what it takes to get Americans to watch network news again, they’re in worse shape than they ever imagined. Besides, within weeks of Sept. 11, it was clear that the all-news networks’ 24/7 capabilities provided more constant and consistent coverage than the usual three-minutes-and-then-we-punt style of the networks. Newspapers offer more words and gripping photos. Magazines use their delayed publishing schedule to provide a bigger picture and more thoughtful analysis. Radio allows a personality to have a continuing conversation with a community of listeners for several hours a day. And online magazines and blogs bring a slew of advantages to the table–more diverse voices, no space limits, the ability to hyperlink to other sources, the ability to combine word, photo, sound, video…
While presiding over this steady decline in audience, influence, trust, prestige, and reputation, Rather’s sense of self-importance has grown proportionally larger. He tells the Boston Globe that he fears for journalism in the wake of his departure:
Instead, he is issuing warnings about the increasing ability of interest groups and politicians to intimidate journalists and discourage scrutiny from the press.
Asked why he has long been target of conservative critics complaining about a liberal bias in the media, Rather says: ”I am independent and fiercely independent. It’s the role of movements and partisan political organizations to apply the pressure and to try and intimidate. It is the job of the journalist in a free society to say ‘no.’ …I haven’t stopped trying.”
Rather’s big concern? ”That the American press as a whole will succumb to the undertow to be more docile, in some cases obsequious…to move in the middle, settle for mediocrity–one, in exchange for access, and two, out of fear that you’d be called a bad name, unpatriotic, or radical right or liberal. What I’m talking about here is the increasing danger of being intimidated.”
Rather not only doesn’t get “it,” the light from “it” takes several years to reach Planet Dan. First, Rather may insist he was independent, but few felt he was fair, or balanced. (And the three words are not synonymous. An independent reporter can be unfair.) Nobody in news is saying “yes” to pressure and intimidation from movements and partisan political organizations. In fact, we’re seeing a wave of journalists who are open about their views–Lou Dobbs’s relentless pounding on immigration and outsourcing issues; John Stossel’s impatience with widespread misperceptions and media myths, the oddly pro-American, pro-Michael-Jackson ideology of Geraldo Rivera. Many on the right may believe that Keith Olbermann is a raving moonbat, but isn’t it better that he’s getting a chance to come out of the closet as a raving moonbat, instead of having to try to sneak his views in under the radar?
I suspect many news viewers appreciate reporters and anchors who stop pretending that they don’t have opinions about the news they cover, and just come on out and let viewers know what they think.
There are more news outlets and news options for readers and viewers than ever before. The political discussions in the blogosphere give more people more opportunities to speak and to be heard than ever before. There are more institutions digging into more topics (and specializing) than ever before, an information era vastly greater than decades past when the Big Three networks set the nation’s news agenda.
For both the casual news-follower or the current-events junkie, the news world is vastly better than it was when Dan first sat in the anchor desk on March 9, 1981.
It will get a little bit better than that when Rather departs tonight.