Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2004 / 20 Kislev5765

Paul Greenberg

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The big change in the news | If you're looking for a single change that sums up the big change in the American news media over the past decade, it may be the announcement that Dan Rather is retiring as anchorman of the CBS Evening News. It's not just a newscaster who's going but our idea of news.

Determined to stay in character to the end, he announced his retirement with the same ill grace with which he'd conducted his last and biggest scandal, claiming that it had nothing to do with his decision to step down. When, of course, his disgrace still hangs over every word he says on air.

How sum up what Dan Rather did to himself and CBS? It isn't easy. For the Case of the Forged Documents had everything that makes Americans deeply suspect, utterly despise and, in our few charitable moments, pity the Old Media. There was the obvious bias, the phony substantiation and just the plain old, uncaring shoddiness of it all.

But most of all, the whole affair had the defining characteristic of an unmasked elite: sheer arrogance. Day after day and even week after week, Dan Rather and CBS tried to brazen it out. The country saw a positively Nixonian exercise in denial as another national figure twisted slowly in the wind.

CBS had set out to prove the 30-year-old charges that George W. Bush had used his family's pull to get into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War; that he'd defied a direct order to get a physical; and that he'd pretty much disappeared toward the end of his tour of duty.

CBS might have gotten away with it, too, in a different, pre-blogger era when nobody questioned the Holy Trinity of television networks. That it didn't shows how very much the times - and the idea of news - has changed.

Dan Rather and haughty company were still living in the artificial, pre-blog, pre-talk show world. It was a world in which style was all, and even the most dubious assertion might be accepted if delivered with a pretense of authority.

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But with the advent of the blogosphere, the documents on which Dan Rather had based a tenuous case were exposed as forgeries within hours, maybe minutes. Because these days an immense corps of fact-checkers exists out there in ethereal space - as any newspaper columnist learns at the drop of a questionable "fact."

Just attribute a great line like "One never knows, do one?" to the wrong Fats (Domino instead of Waller) and you're likely to hear from half the country. Believe me, I know.

In the end, all CBS succeeded in doing was to discredit even any legitimate questions about George W. Bush's service during the Vietnam era - because its hatchet job was so laughable.

Moral: If you're going to slant the news, you'd better do it artfully. This smear job was done so artlessly that you might be forgiven for suspecting that Mr. Rather (and Michael Moore, too) had been secretly working for the Bush campaign.

Now some of us watch Dan Rather not so much to get the news - it's been all over the Web for hours - but just to see him ignore the elephant in the studio, and to marvel at how a public figure so thoroughly compromised can still go on appearing in public.

The whole, marvelous facade that was the CBS Evening News now lies in ruins, but Dan Rather goes on posing in front of it. As if nothing had changed. What an incredible show. In so many senses of the word.

We watch Dan Rather now for the same reason we used to watch the immediately post-Watergate Richard Nixon. We know there's something sinful in experiencing so much freude over so much schaden - so much satisfaction in viewing all this self-inflicted damage. But we can't tear our eyes away from the whole, irresistible spectacle. Even though we know we're supposed to be oblivious to what just happened, and pretend all is as it was before. As if the emperor's new threads never looked so fine.

Dan Rather now has earned a place in every standard Ethics in Journalism Course for the next 30 years. His was a textbook case of hubris on top of hubris. And a demonstration of how much the business of the news has changed in the past decade or two.

That something has changed in American news should have been obvious when Walter Cronkite was brought back not long ago, with much ado, as a syndicated columnist - and promptly bombed. It wasn't so much that he was no longer believable but that he was no longer guaranteed an audience in a world in which the serious consumer of news now has a lot more choices than three sound-alike networks (CBS, ABC and NBC), two newsweeklies (Time and Newsweek), and two newspapers (The New York Times and The Washington Post). The cozy little world of the Old Media now seems awfully cramped.

There's a word for what hit the old journalism: diversity. A diversity of ideas. And the old journalism doesn't like it one bit. The world of news has expanded exponentially with Cable TV, talk radio, and the Internet. But the Old Media still doesn't get it, any more than it understands why George W. Bush was re-elected president.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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