A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning for Dan Rather

So Dan Rather, the anchor (as in weighing down an entire enterprise) of the CBS Evening News, signed off for good last night, the night before, or more than a decade ago, when he was secretly replaced by a Disney animatron deemed far more life-like that the real McCoy. Insert "Kenneth, What is the frequency?" joke here.

Rather was a great bizarro presence on TV (and journalistically, I'd say he was no worse than high-hat hacks such as Murrow, Sevareid, Cronkite, et al). He was to news shows what Phil Rizzuto was to sportscasting, a highly visible joke who made us all feel a little bit smarter and smugger about ourselves. (True, Rather, unlike the Scooter, never appeared on a record as big as Meat Loaf's great pop opera "Paradise By the Dashboard Light." But Dandy Dan did help make an early DIY pastiche, The Evolution Control Committee's "Rocked By Rape," possible; go here to listen--and listen you must.)

But more important, Rather was increasingly irrelevant not because of anything he did or said (though the sweater vests certainly contributed to the loss of faith in the "institution" of TV news every bit as much as NBC's Dateline faking GM truck rollovers with rigged explosions and Geraldo Rivera burrowing into Al Capone's vault and writing his Eyes Wide Shut-esque memoir, Exposing Myself).

One sign of irrelevance? In the late '90s/early '00s, Reason used to send out a direct mail package to potential subscribers touting the fact that our magazine told you stories that "Dan, Connie, Peter, and Tom would never tell you!"--an allusion to the then-anchors of the broadcast news shows (recall that Connie Chung, now working the aromatherapy tent at the Judge Crater Dude Ranch for forgotten celebrities, briefly coanchored--as in weighing down an entire enterprise--CBS's newscast). The package performed pretty well, so we left it alone. A couple of years later, when we went back to freshen it up, it took my then-publisher and I a couple of minutes to remember who the hell Dan, Connie, Peter, and Tom were.

Broadcast news as an institution has declined in its importance not for anything Dan Rather did or didn't do. Fewer than 40 percent of households watch such programs nowadays, down from about 75 percent in 1980. That's as much a sign of liberation from tyranny as the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are more and better news sources available than ever before. Or, as important, it's easier to escape "news" altogether if you want to. So as a retiring Dan Rather gets put on the ice flo, let's remember him fondly. Or, more honestly, let's pretty much forget he--and broadcast news--ever existed. If nothing else, the end of broadcast news may mean the end of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment, which is something that everyone can get behind.

But good luck to his replacement, the Nosferatu newsman--and longtime host of undead Sunday morning "news" show Face the Nation--Bob Scheiffer.

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  • ||

    That's as much a sign of liberation from tyranny as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    You had me up until this point.

  • ||

    Great. Can we have a month-long moratorium on write-ups that comment on the media?

  • ||

    Come on guys, pop culture is Nick's schtick. And nightly network news was pop culture at its worst.

  • Warren||

    Nick,
    That reminds me of the greatest one sentence lampooning of the tyranny that was network news:

    "Good evening, I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not."

  • ||

    Though never a Dan Rather fan, where Nick really had me was in the wish that the death knell may be sounding for Weekend Update.

    True, Tina Fey has managed to breath some semblance of life into the segment. But where can you possibly go but up from the nadir that was Norm MacDonald and an only marginably better Colin Quinn.

    I haven't really liked it since Dennis Miller was doing it.

  • ||

    Madpad, give Norm MacDonald a little credit. Weekend Update's nadir was Kevin Nealon.

  • ||

    Who's Dan Rather??

  • ||

    Keith,

    Yaknow? I was just thinking about that...for me though, it's kind of a toss up.

    Nealon at least could get a laugh. Mr. (hot sex!)Subliminal was pretty good.

    Norm, by contrast, has no memorable (for me anyway) bits...at least not ones memorable for being funny.

    DISCLOSURE: I worked in a comedy club for 3 years in the early 90s and Norm was a headliner on the circuit. He sucked. Really sucked. People just didn't laugh.

    I'm told he did well in other markets. All I know is that a week of Norm (8 shows), 2 weeks a year got real old real fast.

  • ||

    Rather's reporting of Kennedy's assassination, his courageous work in Vietnam, and his coverage on September 11 are the work of a man with a lot of balls, brains, and heart.

  • ||

    Joe, You're hillarious! Balls for sure, you wouldn't catch me trying to set up a president with bogus memos.

  • ||

    Oh that's right, one bad source nullifies a four decade career. My bad.

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    In the late '90s/early '00s, Reason used to send out a direct mail package to potential subscribers touting the fact that our magazine told you stories that "Dan, Connie, Peter, and Tom would never tell you!"

    I always find these sorts of claims to be rather silly. Its up to the news consumer to find the stories, not vice versa.

  • ||

    If teevee news blabbing is passe, why are the four full time national cable news networks (CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, and CNNHeadline), one regional 24 hour news station, and numerous other news shows in my basic cable package?

    And has anyone ever paid to access a blog?

  • ||

    joe,

    Give their very low audience share, its hard for me to see who any of the cable news networks makes money.

  • Warren||

    joe,
    Who you kidding (yourself?). Balls, brains and heart? Pul-eaze. He didn't have any more balls or heart than everyone else covering those stories. And he's never given any indication of brains. As for the claim "one bad source nullifies a four decade career", his whole fucking career was a joke.

  • ||

    Joe,

    One could easily make a case that paying for your ISP each month is roughly equivalent paying for your Cable/Satellite each month.

    On one, I get News & blogging and a buch of other stuff, on the other I get News and Monk, SciFi Network, the Daily Show and a bunch of other stuff.

    I was into your pitch about Rather, but you're out on a limb with this one.

  • ||

    Gary,

    They make money by selling ads, just like blogs.

    Except they can charge a lot more.

  • ||

    To give Joe some back up, I think a lot of folks are being unreasonably hard on Rather.

    I'm not a big Rather fan and when I ever watched broadcast news over the past few years it was usually Brokaw.

    But I'll take Rather over a lot of Fox's more over-the-top shenanigans masquerading as news any day of the week.

  • ||

    joe,

    No shit. Thanks for avoiding the point of my statement.

    MSNBC only started turning a profit in the last quarter (its been on the air since what, 1997?).

    With CNN's collapsing audience share they may indeed be unprofitable at this point (as I recall, they are now averaging a 0.6 share).

    FoxNews considers a 1.6 share to be a good, which is rather pathetic.

  • Nathan||

    If nothing else, the end of broadcast news may mean the end of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment, which is something that everyone can get behind.

    Which reminds me, CBS should make Norm MacDonald the new permanent anchor.

  • ||

    If nothing else, the end of broadcast news may mean the end of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment, which is something that everyone can get behind.

    I like that segment of the show. "Pull it!" :)

  • ||

    Joe,

    Courage.

  • ||

    "...the work of a man with a lot of balls, brains, and heart."

    I just wanted to see that again. That rules. Warren, I think you nailed it.

  • ||

    Will Dan Rather be remember past this current generation? No. Enough said.

  • ||

    I like Dan, and I daresay he makes more money than any of us here, meaning, goshdarn it, a lot of other people like him too.

  • ||

    Gary Gunnels,

    I think joe forgot to mention that FoxNews is subsidized by the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. ;-)

  • Warren||

    Wellfellow,
    Thanks, but I wish I had used this link instead. Hey look! It's Ulitmate Fitness Man humping the carpet, HA!

  • ||

    It takes a lot of courage and a lot of heart to hump a carpet with your shirt off.

  • ||

    crimethink,

    Well, the seed money for FoxNews (as far as I know) came from "right-wingers," but it does appear to turn some sort of profit. They're about as useful as any other news organization I frequent on-line (I think I've actually watched FoxNews about half a dozen times in my life - the tickers, lighting, etc. of all the cable channels make me want to vomit).

  • ||

    Gary,

    You're right on, the overall aesthetic of cable channel programming is absolutely abysmal. I can't deal with it. This is especially true of sports shows. It's like watching a shotgun blast hit a checkerboard. Where does one focus?

  • ||

    the lack of kenny loggins soundtracks is what really sinks fox news.

    "we're at waaaaaaaar....it's a war of the heart baby! just gotta hold on!"

  • ||

    It takes a lot of courage and a lot of heart to hump a carpet with your shirt off.

    Carpet humping man seems to be everywhere these days.

  • ||

    Reason commentary on the media:

    1) Anything produced for entertainment purposes is good because people should have the freedom to consume it in a world of "free minds and free markets". I never have been sure how the later follows from the former ...

    2) Interest in and being informed about politics is bad. This seems to be a subtext of much commentary though I don't really understand it. Perhaps they think that following politics will lead people to think exclusively of political solutions to every problem and lead to the growth of the state. But clearly this will only be the case among people of a certain ideological bent who focus *only* on political solutions. And note that ignoring politics does not shrink the state. How many Patriot Acts, and national id legistation, and other noxious laws will the politicians try to sneak in when they think the populous is indifferent? What ever happened to "eternal vigilance"?

  • ||

    I didn't see The Dan's final sign-off. It never occurred to me to watch.

    Doesn't that pretty much say it all. Courage...

  • ||

    Jim Walsh,

    He he he. :)

  • ||

    Congrats to Dan on a long and succesful tenure as CBS anchor.

  • dagny||

    I remember watching a video in a high school journalism class, the most memorable part of which was this British guy saying how it was perfectly respectable in England to be a newsreader, but no one considered them journalists. I always think of this whenever there is a commentary on some TV news anchor or another.

  • ||

    I've spent all day today depressed. I'm crying on the inside AND outside. What's the frequency, Dan? Now it's all just channel Z.

    Courage.

  • Eric||

    Was I the only one who halfway expected Rather to say "and all you right-wing pajama-clad bloggers, eff off!" and flip off the camera?

  • ||

    dagny,

    Well, Rather was a reporter at one time in his life, correct?

  • ||

    Hell with Rather. Let's talk about Weekend Update.

    When Miller left SNL, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. I'd already suffered through the departure of Lovitz, the last genuinely funny (at the time) person on SNL. Dana Carvey's Bush impression made me want to hurt someone, and Token Girl was dull. But still I hung in there; there was still Dennis Miller.

    Then he left to do inferior work elsewhere, and SNL was dead to me.

    It didn't help that it was right about then that the intolerable Chris Farley arrived. Christ, who ever thought that guy was funny?

  • ||

    My favorite Dan Rather moment....

    It's 1991, on the beaches of Kuwait. The Iraqi troops manning bunkers facing the Gulf have withdrawn because of the ground attacks from the flank and from behind. Rather is going into one of the bunkers to give his "Here they sat, day after day, night after night, watching for the attack from the sea that never came" overly melodramatic speech.

    We see things from a camera already in the bunker, facing the doorway. Rather passes through into the bunker and then ducks down while carefully passing his arm through the space above his head. "Booby traps. You have to check for booby traps in these bunkers." Either he didn't get the note that they'd already checked for booby traps, or the cameraman didn't get the note that he should have checked for booby traps. Or, just maybe, Rather was being overly dramatic.

    For Dan Rather, the news isn't something external that he is charged with delivering to his viewers. For him, the news is an entertainment show, and Dan Rather is the star of the show. He sees himself as a real life Action Hero.

    This is phenomenally irritating, at least to this viewer. If I ever turn on the TV news, it is to watch the news, not to watch the anchor.

    It is justified irony that what did Dan Rather in was that he finally did become the news that he always tried to be a part of. He just wasn't the executive producer of the performance anymore.

  • ||

    Nick:

    So as a retiring Dan Rather gets put on the ice flo ...

    That is a lovely turn of phrase and a beautiful image.

  • ||

    I don't care much for Cronkite, but what exactly do Reasonistas have against Edward R. Murrow? The link has absolutely nothing to justify the "high-hat hack" business. It just links to a story that links to another story by Tim Cavanaugh that called Murrow a hack without giving any reasons. Was Joe McCarthy really so great from a libertarian point of view that you should attack someone who stood up to him?

    I detect something of a sophomoric "let's piss on Greatest Generation icons" mentality here. Or perhaps something like the mentality of the ancient Greek who explained that he had voted to exile someone because "I'm tired of always hearing him called 'The Just.'"

  • ||

    DavidT,

    I think it's more like "let's piss on anyone who was a journalist in the 30s & 40s who DIDN'T nail FDR and Truman for the communists they really were!"

    I had a conservative coworker who used to bitch constantly about this liberal and that liberal. One day he starts bitching about Cronkite. All I could think was "what a looonie. What's so bad about Cronkite?"

    It's part of the conservative pattern of painting anything left of Goldwater as communist. Pretty pathetic actually.

    Point out that Kennedy and Johnson were about as anti-communist as you can get and they just look at you and blink a couple of times before launching into yet another silly anti-left screed.

    Fact is, for most of them, if they didn't have a left to hate, they'd make one up. Whoops...did I say that? I think some of them already have.

    And THOSE (IMHO) are the type of folks who bitch about Murrow.

    Don't get me wrong...there's plenty NOT to like about certain liberal/leftist policies and the people who push them. And Democratic politicians full on deserve the routing they're getting these days. They're weak and unwilling to defend themselves. And yes, some hollywood liberals are, when you get right down to it, silly.

    But I think by and large, a lot of folks who bitch about liberal this and liberal that ultimately don't know what they're talking about in the first place...they just think it's cool to hate liberals so they try to talk like those "edgy folks on Fox."

    To quote Dennis Miller, "Of course that's only my opinion...I could be wrong."

  • ||

    Phil Rizzuto also appears on the Beastie Boys album Paul's Boutique. just thought I'd mention it.

  • ||

    Are you kidding me? Weekend Update? That's one of the few reasons that I turn on the TV at all!

    Everyone remember there own "generation's" SNL cast as "the last time the show was good." In reality, sketch comedy is only occasionally funny; it's simply a matter of who left the cast when we personally decided to give up tuning in for the oh-so-rare, always-elusive nuggets of comedy (Will Ferrell for me).

    Norm MacDonald was hilarious. Colin Quinn has never said anything funny in his life. Tina Fey is vaguely attractive, and she has her moments...although the stuff of hers that SHE considers to be the best ("Mom Jeans" "Colonel Angus") may explain a lot.

  • raymond||

    it took my then-publisher and I...

    Good thing the Malaysian guy didn't tell the kids to learn English from Hit and Run.

  • b-psycho||

    Weekend Update is pretty much the only part of SNL I watch anymore actually. The rest is hit-or-miss. Someone needs to shoot whoever came up with "Debbie Downer", that shit is terrible.

    As for the old newsman dissing, it's more about attitude than politics. The typical news anchor tends to be an insufferable egomaniac for some odd reason, as if since they give "the news" they're no longer human but a mystical oracle of some sort. Only one I have seen that could resist this is Anderson Cooper, who in the short time I had cable went from WhoTheFuckIsThisGuy to "newsman of the future" in my eyes.

  • ||

    I liked the "Colonel Angus" bit. And "Debbie Downer" is pretty lame (except for the episode with Lindsay Lohan - everyone kept cracking up and I was in stitches. The whole show turned out to be one of the funniest SNLs I've seen in years.)

    As for b-psycho's observation, it can't be just oddball sterotyping that insufferable wankers like "Ted" from Mary Tyler Moore, the guy from Murphy Brown and Will Farrel's Ron Burgundy are burned into American minds as what typifies a news anchor.

    As a former journalist, I've never really understood the need for a "seasoned journalist" to read the evening news...it's all a bit pretentious to me. Gravitas my ass (hey...that rhymed!).

  • ||

    Who is Dan Rather???

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