The last time I wrote about veteran TV journalist Dan Rather, I trashed him for inventing the news when he anchored a pseudo-documentary based on forged documents about President Bush's service (or lack of same) in the Texas Air National Guard. But now, I want to defend Rather against unjust and unfair attacks from TV news executives and commentators branding him as "sexist," and worse.
Although the so-called mainstream media have played this as a Dan Rather vs. Katie Couric story, it isn't; instead, it's about what's happened to TV news in recent years. Shortly after I became an Appeal contributor in mid-1996 I wrote a column lamenting the proliferation of "celebrity news" and concluded that the traditional lines separating news and entertainment had been breached by the TV networks in a quest for younger viewers. In my opinion, the situation is far worse today than it was then, and Rather made a valid point a couple of weeks ago when he complained about the "dumbing down" of the news at CBS, his former employer.
I'm old enough to remember the proud CBS News organization headed first by legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and later by Walter Cronkite, once voted "the most trusted man in America." For the most part, Rather maintained high professional standards as managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" before he was eased out of the anchor chair during the Bush/Texas National Guard flap. As we know, Rather was replaced by perky Katie Couric, the longtime co-anchor of NBC's popular "Today Show," and CBS News ratings are now at an all-time low.
Speaking by phone with Joe Scarborough of MSNBC, Rather said CBS had made the mistake of "dumbing down (and) tarting up" its evening newscast. CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves, who is in charge of both news and entertainment, immediately condemned Rather's "sexist" remarks. Shortly thereafter, Rather denied that he was attacking Ms. Couric personally. "It's not about gender ... That's not what I was talking about, and Les Moonves knows that," Rather told his interviewers.
Instead, Rather said that Moonves, who came from the entertainment side of the TV business, made a bad decision by trying "to bring the 'Today' show ethos to the 'Evening News,' and to dumb it down and tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience." So was Rather referring to Ms. Couric when he made his "tart it up" remark? No, because the veteran newsman explained that he was deploring the steady diet of "soft," tabloid-type news involving sexy celebrities like Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton. In other words, in Rather's opinion (and mine), the evening news looks more and more like the frivolous "Hard Copy" or "Inside Edition."
There is powerful evidence that Rather is right. At the time he deplored the dumbing down of the evening news, nightly newscasts were paying more attention to Ms. Hilton, a rich spoiled brat, than they were to highly decorated Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who was removed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in order to avoid a bitter confirmation battle on Capitol Hill. So who is more important in the greater scheme of things, Ms. Hilton or Gen. Pace? You wouldn't know from watching TV because cable news channels were running wall-to-wall coverage of the petty trials and tribulations of Ms. Hilton just as they did earlier this year with the untimely death of another blonde bimbo, Anna Nicole Smith.
Respected Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales accused Moonves and CBS of "blurring" the central issue of the dispute between Rather and CBS. "The CBS chief (Moonves) decided that to get younger viewers to watch the news, it has to be more fun, more upbeat, more entertaining," Shales wrote. "In other words: The news had to stop being the news. The news had to start being the 'Today' show, or something very much like it." So we get mindless man-on-the-street interviews about the mess in Iraq or possible solutions to global warming.
"When Couric signed on nine months ago, the (news) program was filled with squishy gimmicks, such as an alleged vox populi kind of segment (see above) in which people opined on issues of the day," Shales continued. But that's what happens when entertainment executives run network news divisions, and it's a sad state of affairs for anyone who respects the integrity and the seriousness of the news. Of course it's even worse on the local level where ex-beauty queens deliver alleged "news," which is full of thinly disguised advertising promos. That empty-headed mindset produces feature stories on how to re-carpet your living room, or how to look better in sandals. In other words, give the viewers what they want - anything but "hard" news.
"Rather isn't being alarmist when he wonders what will happen to a nation addicted to fake news, celebrity gossip and pop-star prattle," Shales added, "when people abandon the very virtue of being informed, and instead insist on constant titillation from TV ...."
So true! I think this disturbing trend represents the death of the news as we knew it, and is just another way to trivialize the life-and-death issues that face our deeply divided nation and a troubled world.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a semi-retired journalist who has spent more than 40 years in and around the news business.