Rather’s career wrecked, of course, on the rocks of those famous forgeries which were first revealed by internet bloggers. But one wonders what would have happened back then, if the CBS Evening News had been number one — instead of last — in the ratings. Rather was no more insufferable to conservatives than Katie Couric, who will be sitting in his old chair, come September. If the influence of the right wing is so fearsome, how come she got the gig?
No, Rather probably could have survived the forged memo scandal and his high-handed refusal to back down from the story even after it became clear to all that he’d been had. His credibility suffered, of course, but if he’d had the ratings, the network would have stayed with him. CBS jettisoned Rather not because he blew one story, but because he’d been losing eyeballs for years and the network wanted to get them back. Networks sell soap, and, to do that, you need the ratings. Rather wasn’t delivering. See you, Dan, don’t let the doorknob …
This is, then, a story about television; not journalism or politics. The fascination with Rather is due to the altitude at which he was perched. He passed a lot of people along the way, including Roger Mudd, who was his rival for Walter Cronkite’s job. Rather represented the new, edgier face of television news, so he got the job. Katie Couric is the new, warmer, more feminine face of television, so she gets Dan’s job. That’s the way it is in television, and Rather ought to know it if, indeed, he doesn’t.
When CBS News cut staff because of low ratings, Rather made compassionate noises but did not resign in protest or offer to take a pay cut himself. When the producer of the show that was built around the forged documents was fired, Rather expressed sympathy but did not resign in solidarity with her. He wanted that anchorman job, and he held on to it with a kind of tenacity you could almost see in his face.
In the years after he first took over the job, he made sure that Cronkite didn’t have any work to do that might get him on the air. He wanted no competition from the “most trusted man in America.” Rather, like all of them, craved airtime. He lived for that, to get his face on television — not, as he always would claim, to be a reporter.
He went everywhere and did all sorts of bold things to get his face on the television. He plainly had his own agenda and was as much a creature of the Zeitgeist as any of them. He also, famously, had his quirks, and he could carry a grudge, especially for people named Bush. But that is superficial stuff. What mattered, in the end, was … his act was getting old.
This is a story that should evoke feelings of compassion of the kind you feel for an aging athlete. Except…well, except Rather never did take responsibility for that broadcast with the forged documents; he didn’t resign, and he didn’t apologize. He earned, it is said, over a quarter of a billion dollars from CBS. When it became clear to everyone — and certainly to him — that his time at CBS was done, he could have moved on and used some of that money to set up his very own blog. He could become part of the new media, now that the old has so shamelessly gone after the soft features and synthetic feelings market where television exists, not to bring you the news but to manipulate emotions and offend good taste. He could hire a couple of eager young assistants and spend his days bird dogging the evening news shows, staying on them — as he might say — “like white on rice.” Exposing their superficialities and their mistakes and their lies. Could anyone do a better job on network news?
Won’t happen, of course. Rather has signed on with a billionaire’s new project that will keep him in front of the camera. What is sad is not the fact that after 44 years Rather is not leaving CBS on his own terms. This may not be fair, but whoever said that life — or television — is fair. What is sad is this need of his to be on camera. It reminds one of the punch line to that old joke — “What, and give up show business?”
Goodnight, Dan. And good luck.
—Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.