When asked about his view of CBS Evening News during a radio interview with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Monday, Dan Rather said network execs had tried to boost ratings by “dumbing it down and tarting it up.”

The media firestorm that’s followed illustrates the very point–the larger point–Rather has consistently tried to make about the degradation of the mainstream, corporate news biz and the obliteration of the line between news and entertainment.

Watch as CBS dances, deflects and dodges the valid and valuable criticism levied by Rather and plenty of other media watchdogs. Les Moonves, CBS CEO, called Rather’s remark “sexist” and said, “Let’s give [Katie] a break.”

But it’s got nothing to do with Katie Couric. Nor does it really have anything to do with the messenger, Rather (whose colorful, native Texanspeak has gotten him into hot water in the past–much as it did for the late former Governor Anne Richards). It’s about the message.

Rather’s predecessor at CBS, Walter Cronkite–no fan of Rather himself–offered a similar take in a recent keynote address. According to the Associated Press, Cronkite suggested that the pressure for profits is “threatening the very freedom the nation was built upon.”

“It’s not just the journalist’s job at risk here,” Cronkite said. “It’s American democracy. It is freedom.”

And in a recent New York Times op-ed, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps warned of “pressure from media conglomerates” that has made licensing renewals for the free use of the public airwaves a virtual “rubber-stamp” every eight years. He contrasts this with a past when every three years the requirement that networks serve the public interest was given “a hard look” – prior to “deregulatory mania in the 1980’s.”

As for Rather, in these last four years he’s been a consistent critic of the corporate media and his own role in it. He’s self-critical enough–unlike so many others – to know that he weaved and wavered in the run-up to the Iraq War. As he told Bill Moyers, “I don’t think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war. There were exceptions. There were some people, who, I think, did a better job than others. But overall and in the main there’s no question that we didn’t do a good job…. We weren’t smart enough, we weren’t alert enough, we didn’t dig enough. And we shouldn’t have been fooled in this way….”

Rather has also described a culture of fear that permeates the newsroom. In an interview with BBC he said, “It is an obscene comparison–you know I am not sure I like it–but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people’s necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions, and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often. And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism.”

And, speaking to Moyers: “Fear is in every newsroom in the country. And fear of what? Well… a combination of: if you don’t go along to get along, you’re going to get the reputation of being a troublemaker. There’s also the fear…particularly in networks, they’ve become huge, international conglomerates. They have big needs, legislative needs, repertory needs in Washington. Nobody has to send you a memo to tell you that that’s the case…. And that puts a seed in your mind of, well, if you stick your neck out, if you take the risk of going against the grain with your reporting, is anybody going to back you up?”

Recently, NBC News led its evening news program with two-and-a-half minutes on Paris Hilton. Coverage of Anna Nicole Smith topped Iraq War coverage on the networks night after night. There is no question that the network news programs have become cogs in the conglomerate machine where news is a profit center.

We desperately need a news media that raises the tough questions, acts as watchdogs of the public interest, questions authority–performs the basic duties required of a free press in a democracy. A flawed media leads to a flawed democracy. And in these past six or so years, with some notable exceptions, the media has been too easily intimidated by an administration that used fear to make its case for war, labeled its critics un-American, quashed dissent, perverted the meaning of patriotism and brazenly–on all fronts–subverted the Constitution. As longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas wrote in The Nation,”[Reporters] lapped up everything the Pentagon and White House could dish out–no questions asked.”

So, now, when Dan Rather talks about dumbing down news in order to tart it up–it ain’t about Dan, and it ain’t about Katie. It’s about consolidation, conglomeration, and the impact on the Fourth Estate and our democracy.