LOS ANGELES – Shame on CBS for treating Dan Rather so badly. In a business that depends on loyalty, they've shown none. And what goes around may come around, if viewers are indeed watching.
CBS has every right to replace Dan Rather in the anchor chair. That's their business, and it is a business. If they think Katie Couric can rate better, so be it. If they think an entirely new team will repair their relationship with the White House, so be it.
But when people serve you loyally, you don't trash them, step all over them, treat them like dirt, then kick them out the door – and expect your customers, consumers, your audience to look the other way, and keep watching. At least I hope we won't, once we make the connection.
What is happening to Dan, unfortunately, is not so different from what happens to lots of people his age-- the difference being that for Dan, it is happening on a much more visible scale.
Dan Rather was, for a time, the golden boy. Then he got older. Not old, but older. There was a time when a man his age would be done working. No more. In Dan's case, of course, he doesn't need the money. Most of us, on the other hand, never stop needing the money. And virtually all of us, no matter how old we are, need work.
When I got my first job, at 16, and came home complaining of aching feet and exhaustion, my father said to me that there was a reason they call it work. Indeed there is. But so often, particularly as we get older, work is more than a source of income; it gives our life meaning and purpose, gives us a reason to get up and get dressed and go somewhere in the morning, gives us a sense of satisfaction and purpose, a focus for our imagination and drive.
Obviously, you can take that too far; obviously, there are things more important than work-- family and faith and community, and no one ever said on their death bed that they wish they'd spent more time at work. But without work, especially meaningful work, many people simply don't survive.
As life expectancies grow longer, and as our quality of life improves, doing a "Dan Rather" to someone becomes both more common and more unacceptable. Treating people like this can literally kill them. Is this what a lifetime of loyalty earns you?
Dan Rather has worked for CBS News for 44 years. He has been the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News for 24 years. His official CBS bio describes him as living up to his reputation as "the hardest working man in broadcast journalism," with seven books to his credit.
Has he made mistakes? Yes, including one major one, the report on President Bush's military service, in which the network relied on documents that turned out to be forgeries, and Dan was forced to apologize on the air. But show me anybody who has been in a job for 44 years who hasn't made a mistake.
Had he made that mistake when he had fewer wrinkles, would it have counted for so much?
Getting old is a frightening proposition in any business, but it has traditionally been particularly unacceptable in broadcast journalism. Everybody is looking for the younger "demo" – the demographic audience between 25 and 54. It's not because kids have more money than their parents – they don't – but because it's assumed that by the time you reach middle age you're set in your ways and have already decided how you'll spend it. Kids, on the other hand, are supposedly more likely to be swayed by, and therefore more attractive to, the advertisers.
Could anything be more absurd? Recent research has undermined the premise for the preference, and yet most of the television programmers continue, like rats in a maze, to chase after each other and the youth market.
But as ABC has just discovered, even young viewers don't necessarily want to get their news from people their own age. The recent rather unceremonious sacking of the pregnant Elizabeth Vargas for the 60-something Charles Gibson was an admission of failure for the most recent youth-oriented gambit in news programming, and a recognition that sometimes, experience and a few gray hairs count for more than a pretty face.
Is it really the case that CBS could find nothing for Dan to do for all these months, no positive use for someone with his experience, drive, determination and work ethic?
I met Dan Rather in 1987, when I took over the Dukakis campaign. He had always been one of my heroes. I knew he was smart as a whip, and knew politics, but I didn't know what kind of man he was. There were stories that he was tough. I was the first woman in a job like mine, and one of the youngest. He could have treated me like what I was: a kid. But he was unfailingly gracious, helpful, kind, a man of his word, old fashioned in the best sense of the word.
He was, in short, everything that the top brass of CBS has not been in its dealings with him.
Dan Rather will be fine. He has been humiliated, but he will land on his feet. But there is a lesson here. The news business is a tough business, but what business isn't? Thank Goodness I am lucky enough to work for Roger Ailes, who heads Fox News, and is the most loyal man in network news.
Not everyone is. Viewers who watch this sort of thing need to decide for themselves. Reward bad behavior and you'll see more of it. Dan deserved better. His fans have the power to send that message in the one way that really counts.
Network news is a business, and the ultimate power is in the hands of the people with the clickers. That's us. The brass at CBS is assuming that no one will care how they treat an old man. They could be wrong. Again.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.