Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2004/ 17 Kislev, 5765

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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Wanted: a bottom with ego to match | You never know who's looking for a new place to sit down until you put out an empty chair.

For a lot of the journalists of television's Entertainment News, the most inviting chair in town is at CBS, where Dan Rather will soon leave for "other duties" with the seat of his pants on fire. He can take his faked documents with him. Now the moguls at Black Rock are looking around to see whose bottom might be big enough to fill his chair.

This is particularly rich for the millions of viewers who have been throwing shoes at their TV screens for years, frustrated by the bias, baloney and bigotry spread out before their eyes by pretty faces with IQs of a hamster. But now the times, they are a-changing. The dominant media culture is as arrogant as ever, often as ignorant as ever, but not quite so dominant as it used to be, and getting less so.

Television news in particular is not what it used to be. The Internet, with its hundreds of news sources, some reliable and many others not so reliable, is doing to television news what television news did to newspapers a generation ago, nibbling away at audience. Some of the bites are getting dramatic. The audience for network newscasts is but a shell of what it used to be. Advertisers are taking notice; Internet advertising is growing spectacularly.

What has often infuriated newspapermen is that television news couldn't exist without newspapers, since the newspaper is where the television producers not only clip most of their news, but where they go to find out what's news and what's not. You'll see dozens of reporters and columnists from major newspapers as talking heads on your television screen, but rarely if ever see the byline of a television personality on the op-ed page of a serious newspaper.

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Compounding the irony now, the newspaper sites are the major purveyors of news on the Internet, thus giving some newspapers audiences of a size that dwarfs that of a network newscast. The Drudge Report, despised as it may be by the media elites who read it (as if) religiously, can strike with a bigger impact than a network news broadcast. Politicians from City Hall to the White House like the television interview because they'll get softball questions, as anyone who watched the presidential debates could see. But television never could set an agenda. And now the wheel that goes around has come around, and the network moguls are jostling each other out of the way to find the panic button.

The gloom at CBS is particularly dark, wet and deep, because Dan Rather, for all his huffing and puffing, is the fading face of a shriveling medium. The "CBS Evening News," once the gold standard of television news, has struggled and stumbled to an audience behind both NBC and ABC and even on rare nights, Fox News. The sacking of Dan Rather, even if a self-sacking, gives the network an opportunity to throw out a lot of the deadwood. Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, may soon be on the street himself, rubbing his own raw hind quarters.

The usual suspects to succeed to the empty chair are Scott Pelley, a reporter for the weeknight clone of "60 Minutes," and John Roberts, the network's White House correspondent. But the network may be looking for more unusual suspects, including two from rival NBC, Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" and Matt Lauer of the "Today" show. Mr. Lauer is the pretty face television news always lusts for, and Mr. Russert is that rare television interviewer who asks good questions and allows his guests to answer without interruption. But he's authentic, and television is always puzzled at the sight of the real deal.

Merely suggesting that the network is looking elsewhere is enough to put ants in the pants of Messrs. Pelley and Roberts, and now Bill O'Reilly, the chief spinmeister at Fox News, has mailed in his resume with a remarkable hymn to both CBS and Dan Rather, published in JWR and the New York Daily News , the fiercest rival of the New York Post, which is owned by Mr. O'Reilly's current employer. (You have to use a good map to follow these media intrigues, and pay close attention.)

"I worked with Rather and have known him for more than 20 years," writes Mr. O'Reilly. "Listen to me: There is no way on this Earth that he would have knowingly used fake documents on any story.... Dan Rather was slimed. It was disgraceful."

The slimer slimed? The disgraceful sliming, as everybody else in America recalls, was of George W. Bush. But if a chair is big enough, somebody will want to sit in it, even if there won't be room for both his bottom and his ego.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2004 Wes Pruden