by Kimberley Jane Wilson
It may be hard for those under 30 to imagine, but most Americans once only had three television networks to watch. If one was lucky and - and had a strong antenna - they might also have channels showing syndicated shows and old movies. And maybe PBS.
Families sat down and watched nightly network newscasts. That often meant watching legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. Cronkite wasn't just a talking head. He was called "the most trusted man in America." If he said something was so, it was. No questions were asked.
When Walter Cronkite began making critical comments about the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson despaired that support for the war would evaporate. Cronkite retired as more than a newsman. He became an institution.
Dan Rather, who replaced Walter Cronkite, tried in vain to be a sort of Uncle Walt-lite. That persona never jelled. He wasn't suited for it. More importantly, America changed. The nation no longer needs a daddy figure telling us how the world is today.
After 24 years, Dan Rather just said goodbye to his anchor chair to do spots on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes." That's ironic because it was a now-infamous piece that aired there that cast the final shadow over Rather's career.
When Rather first reported that a young George W. Bush shirked his duties in the Texas National Air Guard, he couldn't have dreamed how quickly the story would collapse in the face of critical analysis from other journalists, Internet bloggers and anybody who used a typewriter in the 1970s.
To make a long story short, the report relied on forged memos critical of the future president's military career. Several of Rather's colleagues were later fired and Bill Burkett, the source of the memos, might sue CBS.
Rather violated a supreme tenet of journalism: He fell in love with the story. As the old saying goes, "love is blind." But how many times does such an affair end happily? Like Captain Ahab, who destroyed himself and nearly everyone around him pursuing the great white whale, Rather stubbornly clung to this story when almost everyone else found it as substantial as a cobweb.
It isn't the first time Rather presented a news story too good to be true. It's largely forgotten, but he also presided over a tainted 80s CBS documentary on Vietnam veterans. One of the men he interviewed claimed to have skinned 50 Vietnamese peasants in an hour. It's a disgusting image, but hard to take seriously since I cannot properly clean a large fish in less than 20 minutes. My mother, a farmer's daughter, remembers her dad taking the better part of a day to deal with his hogs at butchering time. The star of Rather's story claimed to have skinned people at a rate of about one per minute.
Mike Walker, who wrote about this shameful incident in his hilarious new book Rather Dumb, points out the nonsense of it all. Yet Dan Rather swallowed it. Not only was the man later found to be lying, but he never saw combat (he did spend time in the brig for going AWOL). This should have been the end of Rather, not Memogate about two decades later.
With Dan Rather's retirement, watchers are wondering how network news will change. Nothing will probably change content-wise. But that's okay.
People don't need the networks anymore. There are now hundreds of channels. The Internet allows people to read newspapers from around the country and the world.
In part due to Rather's irresponsible behavior, no one man or network has a lock on the news anymore. People are skeptical. That's something to celebrate.
Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].
Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research.
Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries
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