"No One Was Watching"

Tim Rutten of the LA Times writes that one of the reasons Dan Rather is leaving his anchor post at CBS News is because, "it was the bloggers — some of whom raised questions about the documents’ authenticity within hours of the broadcast — who brought him down." The real reason, he says, is because, "No one was watching" anymore.

Choosing sides can be a bracing experience, but the reflexive partisan strife that now colors every discussion of the American news media obscures far more than it clarifies. The presumption of bad faith and conspiratorial deceit is now a given in many, if not most, criticisms of the media. In such an atmosphere, it can be difficult to maintain a grip on even homey, functional little principles, like cause and effect.

Take, for example, the bizarre combination of mirth and mourning surrounding this week’s retirement of Tom Brokaw as anchorman of NBC’s nightly newscast and the recent announcement that Dan Rather will vacate his chair at CBS in March.

On the one side there are those who insist on seeing Brokaw and Rather not as a couple of well-heeled pensioners but as symbols of the now vanishing — and irretrievable — grandeur that was network news. In this schema, one supposes that circumstances now confer on ABC’s Peter Jennings that peculiar sepia-tinged nobility American sentimentality reserves for the inevitably doomed — kind of like Ishi, living out his days at the Berkeley anthropology museum, or that last passenger pigeon lingering for years in the Cincinnati Zoo’s aviary.

Of course he’s right, but WOW…that’s deep. I had to sit and ponder that last sentence for awhile.

On the other side are the gleeful antagonists of their own great Satan, what has come to be called mainstream media. For them, the networks are both technological dinosaurs and archetypes of the liberal elitism now being battered into rubble by a right-of-center populism that has found its most perfect expression in the democratic new media, particularly Internet blogs (emphasis mine -ed.). They hold the decline and fall of network news as a foregone conclusion, but they take particular pleasure in Rather’s departure, which they attribute to the scandal into which he tumbled during the presidential campaign.

Forget the scandal – we’re glad Dan is leaving because we are sick and tired of his years of biased reporting, editorial comments and self righteousness going mostly unchecked until now.

As you will recall, that involved his broadcast of a "60 Minutes" segment that attacked President Bush’s military service on the basis of documents a kid reporter would have spotted as frauds.

This disgrace, and not the fact that the guy is 72 and has been in his job for 24 years, must be the cause of his retirement. More to the point, it was the bloggers — some of whom raised questions about the documents’ authenticity within hours of the broadcast — who brought Dan down.

Amen.

Even his defenders seem to accept this proposition. Certainly, that was the case with the unlikeliest of them: Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who used his syndicated newspaper column this week to make an unequivocal case for Rather’s personal integrity. That point was fairly and convincingly made. Then, there was the rest of the column, which began:

"The ordeal of Dan Rather goes far beyond the man himself. It speaks to the presumption of guilt that now rules the day in America. Because of a ruthless and callow media, no citizen, much less one who achieves fame, is given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to allegations or personal attacks. The smearing of America is in full bloom."

O’Reilly went on to argue that while Rather’s critics are entitled to their political views — a rather minimal admission coming from somebody who cashes a Fox paycheck — they are not entitled "to practice character assassination or deny the presumption of innocence. Dan Rather was slimed."

According to the Fox News personality, "All famous and successful Americans are now targets. Unscrupulous people know that any accusation can be dumped on the Internet and within hours the mainstream media will pick it up. It will be printed in the papers, discussed on radio and TV and become part of the unfortunate person’s resumé whether he or she is guilty or not. A click of the Internet mouse can wipe out a lifetime of honor and hard work."

Internet = bad.

Now, given the fact that O’Reilly himself recently was forced to buy his way free of a nasty sexual harassment allegation, the psychoanalytically inclined may detect a degree of projection here.

Color me psychoanalytically inclined.

But on a more mundane plane — you know, that one where most of us live and things like cause and effect still prevail — the question remains: Is this really what happened?

No.

Network news divisions are business units of sprawling corporate conglomerates. In CBS’ case, that company is Viacom. When it comes to emotions and honor and reputations, these people are flat-liners. In fact, the only line they recognize is the one at the bottom of the balance sheet. In that context, the relevant things about Dan Rather are not words but numbers.

For example, for more years than anybody at CBS cares to remember, the nightly newscast he anchored has run dead last among viewers. Every one of those missing ratings points was another plank in the coffin. If there was a final nail, it probably was forged on election night, a kind of Super Bowl of television news.

Why do I have a vision of a guy pushing a wheeled cart and yelling "Bring out your dead, Bring out your dead"?

It had been more than four decades since any general election gripped the American public’s attention in the way this one did. More than eight out of every 10 voters said they followed the contest between George Bush and John Kerry closely and of that group, 82% said television was their primary source of news. Nearly 85% of the Americans who cast a ballot said they closely followed the returns on election night and fully 97% of that group said they watched television news to do so. In fact, interest was so keen that 51% of the voters said they watched television news past midnight.

So where did the CBS coverage, which Rather anchored, rank? Dead last among the broadcast networks, all three of which finished behind Fox and CNN. Just 9% of those who cast ballots relied on CBS for their news, barely ahead of MSNBC, which was watched by 6%.

Rather is not losing his job over scandal or Internet calumny. As the essayist and social critic Joseph Epstein wrote this week, at most, "by catching him out in shoddy journalistic practice, [the bloggers] cost Dan Rather an honorable departure from a long career."

Mmmmm, I like the sound of that. And now, the twist of the knife…

That career ended because, at the end of the day, nobody was watching.

That’s the truth, and the fact that Rutten (being a member of the MSM himself) is willing to put it that plainly is impressive. Dan has no one to blame but himself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if he’s looked in that mirror yet.

Comments

  1. Here’s a question: if Rather was running dead last among three newscasts all those years, why didn’t they move him?

    Has no one ever considered the idea that maybe running all three newscasts at the same time is self-destructive? That maybe work habits have changed enough that if one newscast ran an hour later than the others, it could have been successful at that hour? Instead they’ve played chicken for half a century, and CBS has lost for years. Of course, the time to change this would have been before a million other networks came along, some running news 24 hours a day, others running no news at all. The concern over which newscast is #1 in that universe is like a fight over who’s the star of the choir in an empty church.

  2. I’m sick of all the conventional wisdom BS about the dying network newscast and Dan Rather’s struggles in 3rd place. The point always is lost that even if Rather’s “only” drawing 7-plus million viewers, that’s still more than three times as large as the biggest cable news audience, O’Reilly’s.

  3. The Whole World Isn’t Watching: Rather Booted For Zero Ratings

    Tim Rutten of the LA Times writes that Rather’s downfall was due to a combination of 1) bloggers watching him and 2) only bloggers watching him, and PunditGuy digests it for you: It had been more than four decades since…

  4. Mike G raises a good point about scheduling problems for the network newscasts, but the problem is the networks are largely locked out by the 1970 primetime-access rule that gives affiliates the lucrative 7-8 hour. That’s the wall that for decades has denied the networks the ability to move the shows to avoid conflicts, to run later to allow more commuters to catch the shows, or to expand to an hour.

  5. the last straw on the camel and all that

    Via Jeff Jarvis, PunditGuy quotes the LA Times’s Tim Rutten on why Dan Rather got the boot. It was the ratings, stupid. Punditguy: That’s the truth, and the fact that Rutten (being a member of the MSM himself) is…

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