Thursday, March 10, 2005

RATHER'S FAREWELL. Dan Rather's final night as anchor of The CBS Evening News was more engaging than I thought it would be. Like most people under 60, I rarely watch any of the network newscasts. My principal broadcast news source is NPR, because it comes to me where I am: in my car, creeping to or from Media Log Central.

Thus my main exposure to Dan, Tom, and Peter over the years has been during major news events and election nights. Rather's newscast last night was hardly a historic moment. His "courage" sign-off struck me as a less-than-successful attempt to recontextualize one of his weirder moments from years past.

But the hour-long special that followed, Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers, was a reminder that despite Rather's well-documented shortcomings, the guy has been there for just about every big story since 1960s - from the Galveston hurricane, to the assassination of John Kennedy, to Vietnam, and on through Watergate, Iran-contra, his "Gunga Dan" moment in Afghanistan, right up through and beyond 9/11. If I'm not mistaken, he was the last journalist to interview Saddam Hussein, and from what I can recall, it was a reasonably tough interview, given that his subject could have ordered him to be dismembered at any moment.

At one point our 14-year-old son, Tim, said to me that it seemed like Rather had been there for every major event of the 20th century. Well, by the time the hour reached its closing moments it certainly seemed that way.

As you might expect, the retrospective was not exactly an honest and hard-hitting look at Rather's career. Rather explained two of his most famous lapses - his self-indulgent "No, Mr. President, are you?" retort to Richard Nixon, and his unnecessarily combative interview with George H.W. Bush - as the inevitable consequence of his "passion." Well, gosh darn, I guess Rather's biggest fault was that he just cared too much.

The program also repeated the clip of Rather personally apologizing for relying on apparently phony documents in the 60 Minutes story on George W. Bush's National Guard service last September. That story pretty obviously hastened Rather's retirement, the numerous denials notwithstanding. Somehow, though, the broadcast omitted the bombshell in the Thornburgh-Boccardi report that Rather later took back his apology. The standup guy sat down.

Walter Cronkite's timing was awful, but he was right when he told CNN this week that Bob Schieffer, not Rather, should have replaced him 24 years ago. Schieffer will now have his chance, though it's likely to last only for a year or two - if that long.

Still, Rather will be missed. He was a link between the great World War II-era television journalists such as Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow and the modern period of downsizing, celebrity, and sensation. Unfortunately, given the direction in which television news has been traveling, we're likely to miss Rather before too long. Courage.

GLOBAL CIRCULATION. I have not written one word about the circulation scandal that has hit several daily newspapers during the past year or. It's arcane and insidery, and has nothing to do with the media issues that I care about. And I pretend to zero expertise on the subject.

This Editor & Publisher story, though, is interesting - well, okay, not much, but the Prudential study it cites has some harsh things to say about the Boston Globe's circulation practices, and that's at least mildly interesting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I didn't see Rather's last night.But I have seen Schieffer in action on Thursday and he's very good. He's easy going and clearly not uptight like you-know-who. Why CBS went a generation with Dan is a mystery. Obviously the networks are loath to make a change at the top.
One thing about the Rather/Walter C. conflict. There was always some tension but the thing seemed to really perk up when Doug Edwards passed away. Rather ended his braodcast saying that Edwards was the greatest [anchor]that ever was. I don't think that went down well with Walter.