Try as I may, I am unable to conjure up a single shred of nostalgia for the once-fabled network evening news programs. Walter Cronkite is a name to me, not a symbol of reassurance or stability. Edward R. Murrow is a historical figure. As for the hallowed idea of “the six o’clock news,” it means nothing: In my adult life, I’ve never had time to watch the daily news at 6 or 6:30, at least not with any regularity. When I watch television at all, I switch without any particular loyalty from CNN to Fox to C-SPAN, depending on who is doing the talking, and I feel reasonably cynical about all of them.
I hasten to add that I am not writing this because I believe my viewing habits are interesting — quite the contrary — but because I suspect that they are typical, and growing more so all of the time. There is little to be said about the amorphous post-baby boomers — anyone born after about 1960 or so — but it’s pretty clear that as a group we have no emotional attachment to ABC, NBC and CBS.
The networks have known this for a long time and have therefore spent much of the past decade trying to get us to watch news programs to which we don’t feel loyal. Flashy videos, human interest stories, jingly music — none of it has worked, and indeed their effect has been the opposite of their purpose. When the big three effectively stopped covering political conventions, the nation collectively shrugged — and changed channels. C-SPAN and PBS viewership spiked this year. During the Republican convention, Fox got the biggest audience of all.
It’s only in this context, it seems to me, that the Dan Rather-fake letters fracas marks a fascinating turning point. Otherwise, it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill scandal. Journalists have been fooled by fake documents before — remember “Hitler’s diaries”? News organizations have been slow to acknowledge obvious mistakes before. What was striking in this case was not what happened or how CBS executives initially reacted but the language used by Rather himself. Faced with criticism, Rather took the position he thought he, as a national icon, had a right to take: He dismissed his critics as “partisan political operatives,” and spoke of how CBS “took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate.” He attempted to defend the “truth of the information,” as opposed to the authenticity of the documents, as if the two could somehow be separated.
What became clear, as the story wound down to the inevitable apology on Monday night, was that Rather and his fellow network newsmen are stuck in a Vietnam/Watergate-era time warp. Most of us regard network anchors as faintly pompous talking heads, people who read other people’s prose off teleprompters. But the anchors, rather extraordinarily, still regard themselves as the conscience of the nation. They aren’t mere “journalists” who have to use authentic documents to prove their allegations but rather people whose fame and large paychecks and unchallenged power entitle them to some kind of automatic credibility, even if their documents are fake.
I’m sure we’ll see this episode as the final collapse of network television’s dominance over the news, and the final triumph of something else, something that is in some ways better, in some ways worse. On the one hand, the media are reverting to a more combative, pre-television norm, a time when partisanship was normal and you picked up your newspaper in the morning with a clear idea of the writers’ opinions — which did at least allow you to compensate for them. On the other hand, in this more competitive, post-television age, partisans expend a great deal of energy fact-checking others, and have more outlets on the Internet, on the radio, in the press and on TV for their findings. You don’t like Rather? Click on www.ratherbiased.com. You don’t like Fox? Read Al Franken.
Much has been made in the past few years of the networks’ “liberal bias.” More dangerous, it seems to me, was the fact that the networks held a virtual monopoly over the most powerful form of communication. By its nature, television news has had far greater influence on politics, particularly national politics, than any newspaper or magazine could dream of. For that reason alone, more viewers watching a wider range of channels has to be better for the political health of the country.
I expect the death throes of network news will be long and drawn out, and there will be tedious weeping and wailing while it happens. But once it’s gone, think of all that might go with it: the stories that are simultaneously pompous and superficial, the atmosphere that is at once grave and silly, the too-famous faces, and the too-brief stories. With any luck, the really good television journalists will survive and migrate elsewhere — and the rest of us can channel surf until we find them.