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….”