The Death of CBS News
"This instrument [Television] can teach, it can illuminate, yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extant that human beings are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it's nothing more than lights and wires in a box".
Edward R. Murrow
October 28, 1958
Dan Rather's departure from CBS News last week was but another reminder of all that has been lost at an organization that was once known as "the Cadillac of broadcast journalism".
I'm just barely old enough to remember November 22, 1963 (I was born on August 16, 1958). In those days, whenever a major news story was breaking, you automatically went to CBS News - no questions asked. Think of its history: Edward R. Murrow, Eric Severeid, Charles Collingswood, Walter Cronkite; Those sons-of-bitches had gravitas, baby!
Those days are long gone. The refusal of the suits at Black Rock to stand by their man is final proof that CBS's glory days are long behind it. When, that same week, they announced that they were replacing the great Bob Scheiffer on the CBS Evening News with someone of the journalistic stature of Katie Courac, that did it. When it comes to getting the news, "cute and perky" doesn't really work for me. Maybe she'll surprise us. When Mike Wallace arrived at the company in 1962, no one took him seriously either. Although he had hosted a critically acclaimed interview program on New York's Channel 5 in the fifties called, Night Beat, he was primarily remembered by many for his work as an actor on Broadway and his commercials for Parliament Cigarettes. By 1968 Wallace had proved his worth to such an extant that legendary producer Don Hewitt decided to team him up with the late Harry Reasoner for a brand new "magazine" program to be called "60 Minutes". The rest, as they say, is history. Can Katie overcome that hurdle? Maybe, but I have this funny feeling....
The biggest irony of all this is the fact that when the dust is settled, history will judge that Rather and his team were essentially correct. George W. Bush was AWOL from the Air National Guard in the seventies. His politically connected father, Congressman George H. W. Bush, was able to pull some strings to keep the despicable little half-wit from serving in Viet Nam. This is the same guy, remember, who has already sent over twenty-five hundred American kids to their deaths in a war in Iraq that was based on lies. The controversy of Rather's exit from CBS has obscured the fact that they got it right. Don't you forget it.
Dan Rather has been the whipping boy of the brain-dead,right wing of this country since the days of Dick Nixon....
Nixon: Are you running for something?
Rather: No, sir. Are you?
OK. Maybe that little exchange was a tad cheeky on Rather's part. But you've got to admit that he was (and is) a reporter's reporter. Watching his impressive career in TV news end in such an ignominious fashion is just too depressing for words. The fact that people like Rush Limbaugh are giddy with joy over his fall only bonds me to him further. [Breaking news: Rush was just busted at the Palm Beach Airport trying to smuggle in a bottle of Viagra from Mexico. So help me, I'm not kidding!]
There was always something about Dan Rather. The man's essential decency and, yes, patriotism were always visible just below the surface of his reporting. Maybe I'm deceiving myself but I don't think I am. In the week following the hideous attacks of September 11, 2001 he went on the David Letterman program and recited a little-known verse from "America the Beautiful". In the midst of it, he broke down and wept:
Oh beautiful, for patriot dreams
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears
It was as powerful a moment as I've ever witnessed on television and I'll never forget it. It revealed so much about the man.
I'll continue to watch the CBS Evening News until September when uncle Bob takes his final bow. I'll probably even tune in for the first few nights of Katie's run.(That's REALLY going to be fun to watch!) I'll also continue to watch Face The Nation every Sunday morning until they replace Scheiffer with Britany Spears. But after that, I'll be tossing CBS News to the wind....Ah, memories!
Dan Rather took a stand and paid a heavy price - just as Edward R. Murrow did fifty-two years earlier. What George Clooney's recent movie bio on Murrow failed to depict was the fact that his famous March 1954 broadcast that exposed the lies of Wisconsin senator Joseph R. McCarthy was, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the end of his career at CBS. In 1960, bitter and frustrated, he left the industry he virtually invented and went to work for the Kennedy administration as the head of the US Information Agency. He died of lung cancer on April 27, 1965 at the age of fifty-seven.
Have the execs at West 52nd street even seen the Clooney film? If they haven't, they probably should. We all should. It's a cautionary tale for our own times, as well. In 1954 there was only one Joe McCarthy. Today the congress, the White House and the main stream media are riddled with Joe MaCarthys. They have, quite literally, hijacked our national political conversation.
Goodnight and good luck.