The "Has-Been Media" are preparing for the most exhaustive and significant shake-up in the history of television news. Tom Brokaw has stepped aside at NBC, and Dan Rather will exit stage left in late March (can Peter Jennings be far behind?). In addition, two lions of the print press, Bill Safire of the New York Times and David Broder of The Washington Post, have announced plans to hang up their spurs.
Most of this was bound to happen. Safire and Broder have been at it a long time; both have tired of the deadline grind and would like more time to sculpt their thoughts and reminiscences. Brokaw also read the handwriting on the wall. He chose wisely to move out while atop the heap, knowing the Golden Age of network news has drawn to an end. (Brokaw has uncanny instincts for survival and for leaving when the getting’s good.)
But then there’s Rather. Having survived in the piranha-like conditions of the network newsroom for nearly a quarter century, Rather finally fell prey to a combination of personal foibles and inspired back-biting. When the already-grim ratings picture suddenly began to look hopeless and bleak, Rather got a good shove from CBS executives, who described his “transition” as an amicable decision agreed upon mutually. That’s a lawyerly way of saying he cried “uncle,” panting and screaming, after they subjected him to a brisk, sustained session with the bastinado.
As a result of his leaving and Brokaw’s opportunistic escape, the news business has entered a Wild West phase — a time of riotous experimentation and no-holds-barred competition. This is a good thing, because journalists have lived too long in a bubble of their own connivance and design. The average reporter in America is far more adept at identifying an impudent cabernet than in locating a local church (forget about an Elk’s Lodge — any Elk’s Lodge). Broadcasters and scribes look at the American public with finicky disdain — as if a journey into a suburb were akin to peering over the edge of a smoldering trash dump, attempting to find a rodent rooting through the debris. They not only have lost contact with mainstream America, they don’t like it.
Network news since the Cronkite era has thrived on just this kind of snob appeal. People watched so they could learn how to adopt the posture appropriate to someone who was both bored and wise. Networks dispensed a steady stream of fashionable opinions and factoids, which viewers then might recite with the proper insouciance, during the next debate in the company cafeteria. That sort of thing worked for many years, but over time, the networks spun slowly out of orbit. The facts and opinions dispensed by the mavens moved from being merely shocking to becoming impossibly implausible, and with the possible exception of the Streisand Brigades — esteem-starved members of the academic and entertainment elites — everyone figured out that bias had driven away any pretense of evenhandedness.
The 60 Minutes II imbroglio did Rather in not because it seemed a departure from the norm, but because it seemed too perfectly to capture the arrogance and determined ignorance of the "Has-Been Media." Rather did what most editors do out of habit, (something I have done not only out of habit, but out of a sense of obligation as an editor). He stood behind his wayward reporter, rather than demanding a quick accounting for the story and inflicting proper discipline. Instead, Mary Mapes still earns a salary at CBS, while a nameless news producer got fired for reporting in a timely fashion the death of Yasser Arafat.
Brokaw, Rather, Jennings and other old lions know a new age is coming, and so they’re muttering a bit as they leave the stage. Who can blame them? The world in which they acquired wealth and celebrity has crumbled with startling speed. A new order has arisen. Journalism, no longer a redoubt of the illuminati, has become a vessel of grubby democracy. Anybody — literally, anybody — can play these days. They can insert their views in a weblog. They can call talk radio. Eccentric plutocrats, such as George Soros, get to spend bundles on advertisements in any and all media.
But Bill, Dan, Dave and Tom haven’t fallen prey to a predatory press. They have become the latest generation to realize that history did not commence with them and will not pause to prevent their passing. Don’t weep for them. They have enjoyed a splendid ride. They have been to the journalistic mountaintop, and then some; virtually any one of us would love to have been fortunate enough even to tag along for part of their journeys.
Yet, now the fun comes to people like you and me — for it is our opportunity and obligation to make the press smarter, humbler, and fairer than ever before.
I’m game for the challenge. How about you?
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