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.