Telling It Slant

Dan Rather’s retirement opens a new era of TV journalism.

Rather’s days of the future past

The Dan Rather story has so far been reported from two angles: The mainstream media views his retirement as the first nail in the coffin of network news; the blogosphere views it as the crowning triumph of the “Pajamahadeen“—the conservative bloggers who helped blow up the story of the fake 60 Minutes memos into a full-fledged media scandal. Neither, it seems to me, quite gets it right. With Rather’s retirement from the nightly news, the news anchor may have been replaced by a new paradigm of TV journalism—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

To the likely dismay of his many jammy-clad detractors, Rather, unlike Tom Brokaw, is hardly headed for the rolling green pasture where old news anchors go to die. He will continue to work for CBS on both editions of 60 Minutes. In other words, Rather is leaving his figurehead capacity to become a full-time investigative reporter, precisely the position his critics were so keen to strip him of. He will be free from the mantle of “objectivity” that hangs so heavy on the shoulders of the nightly news anchor. In the few years before he retires for real, he’ll no doubt throw himself into trying to track down the irreproachable, headline-making scoop he needs to rehabilitate his reputation after the embarrassment of Memogate.

So what of this claim that Rather is a dinosaur, a symbol of the dying breed of the network news anchor? That network news is dying, there can be no doubt. Evening news ratings are down 59 percent from their all-time high 30 years ago, due to the ascendance of cable, the Internet, and other alternate news sources, as well as to cultural changes in the way Americans work and live. As media strategist and former CBS producer Robbie Vorhaus puts it, “Nobody comes home at night and says, ‘Honey, give me that martini and I’m going to turn on Dan Rather and watch the news.’ ” (Unless, of course, said martini-swiller is simultaneously online, blogging about Rather’s bias.)

In the generation since Rather took over Walter Cronkite’s chair, there’s been a sea change in the way we experience the flow of information. But precisely because of that shift, whenever I try to imagine the future voice of news on television, it comes out sounding an awful lot like Dan Rather’s: folksy, personal, and partisan to a fault. Ironically, the very qualities that have made Rather a target for ridicule over the years—his sentimental patriotism, his barely veiled partiality, his odd combination of vulnerability and hubris—are those that most resemble the new breed of “personality journalists” that are siphoning viewers away from broadcast news and toward the cable-news talk shows.    

Rather has never been cut from the traditional cloth of the calm, avuncular news anchor. He’s hotheaded and quirky, less a transparent conduit of news than a kind of newsmaker himself.  And while Rather’s anchor career may be drawing to a close, the era of the newscaster-as-newsmaker is just beginning. On Monday, the day before the Rather news broke, CNN announced that former CBS news executive Jonathan Klein would take over as president. In his first teleconference with reporters, Klein was already encouraging CNN anchors to punch up their news coverage with more “personality.” Observing that “the best shows on TV are the direct reflections of producers and correspondents and anchors,” Klein cited Bill O’Reilly as an example of someone who could successfully “channel his passions onto the screen.”

Yesterday, watching the media tributes to Rather, I couldn’t help but think of Klein’s pronouncement. Could you ask for a more passionate channeler than Rather? Remember when he wept openly on David Letterman after 9/11, or recited the lyrics to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” to commemorate the rescue of Jessica Lynch? Then there are the “Ratherisms,” the colorful folk expressions the Texas-born anchor loves to trot out whenever the breaking news gets “hotter than a Laredo parking lot.” (My personal favorite was Rather’s 1996 quote to the Los Angeles Times on the chances of finding him still in the anchor seat after the 2000 election: “You would sooner find a tall talking broccoli stick to offer to mow your lawn for free.”) It may be, as Bryan Curtis has written in Slate, that Rather is simply “barking mad,” but it seems that’s just how we like our news anchors these days: What else could explain the success of loofah-loving loose cannon Bill O’Reilly, or my own favorite lunatic, the certifiable Chris Matthews on MSNBC? Years of information overload have made media critics of us all; these days, we want someone who, in Emily Dickinson’s words, can “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Rather was never fully contained by his role as a newscaster. And now that he has moved on, he seems well-poised to spend his twilight years exploring the possibilities of the post-anchor era. On Larry King Live in January 2001, Rather, discussing the post-presidential future of Bill Clinton, asked King how he would feel about “a talk show that had President Clinton and myself … a national talk show, maybe nine o’clock Eastern Time? How would you feel about that? … I’m kidding.” Or is he? Like Clinton, Rather seems temperamentally suited to the warmth and informality of the talk-show format. In the television climate of a few years from now, a down-home, unabashedly opinionated chat show like Fun With Bill and Dan might well be giving the network news shows a run for their money.