CBS made it official today, announcing that Dan Rather is leaving the network for good after 44 years. The news was not a big surprise. Rather stepped down from the anchor chair last year, after the Memogate scandal, over a report based on suspect documents (which may or may not have been authentic) about President Bush’s National Guard service (which he may or may not have served). "There will always be a part of Dan Rather at CBS News," said the network’s glowing statement. Just not a part that is actually attached to Dan Rather’s body.
Ironically, this may be a case of the network being too old-fashioned for its septuagenarian anchor. Let me explain: there are probably any number of reasons that CBS no longer has a place for Rather–the National Guard story, the desire to develop new talent, and so on–but it was clearly a problem that, in his last years, Rather became radioactive. He was targeted by conservatives in particular as the embodiment of liberal TV news, less for anything he overtly said than the general perception that he and his newscast were especially pugnacious toward conservatives in power. (You could say that taking on whoever happens to be in power is part of investigative journalism, but hey, potato, potahto, and public relations is about perception, not truth.) That would not have changed no matter what kind of typewriters used superscript in the 1970s.
Now the funny thing is, Dan Rather stands for the very things that most of media calls the wave of the future: disctinctive voice, point of view and provoking strong feelings. That’s Fox News, that’s the blogosphere, that’s most of the nonfiction publishing industry. In the rest of the media world, a big name who has passionate supporters and intense haters can print money. But network evening news has not yet figured out how to monetize this. Thus, CBS’s idea of a radical change is bringing in Katie Couric, whose broad, blandly pleasing Middle American appeal made Today the number one morning show, and signing a deal with Anderson Cooper, whose interview with Angelina Jolie tonight CNN is flogging like an audience with the Pope. Except a really sexy Pope with a new baby.
And Rather? As he might say, he’s left as exposed as a flea on a hairless Chihuahua. But maybe not for long. There have been reports that Mark Cuban–the one billionaire who may just be eccentric enough to understand Rather–is trying to lure the anchor for a news show on his high-def cable channel, HDNet. Rather would join Ted Koppel–now working with Discovery Channel–as another august network news personage starting over in cable niche news.
These old guys: they’re just too hip for the big networks.