After a long reign (and don't underestimate how much they feel they "reign" over American politics), two of the three evening news anchormen are headed for the door. Tom Brokaw declared long ago he would depart after a final newscast on December 1. Just before Thanksgiving, Dan Rather added that he would step down from his TV throne in March, on the 24th anniversary of his debut.
No one, and I mean no one, inside or outside network news, would have predicted in January that Dan Rather would quit before his 25th anniversary in the anchor chair in 2006. That was the early betting line. Others thought Dan would stay as long as humanly possible and attempt to be the Strom Thurmond of network anchormen.
Don't buy the idea that this sudden retirement has nothing to do with Rather's embarrassing hoax on Bush's military service. Rather's ham-handed Bush-bashing, coupled with his embarrassing denials of the obvious, gave the CBS number-crunchers the opening. Now they can see if a non-Rather (or even an anti-Rather) can get CBS out of their long stay in the broadcast basement.
Conservatives know two things about the Rather mess. First, CBS can't fix the Rathergate problem by merely shifting Rather from "CBS Evening News" to "60 Minutes," which is where he unloaded his anti-Bush hoax in the first place. It's like the New York Times shifting Jayson Blair back to the Metro section, or the Washington Post demoting Janet Cooke to Style section profiles. It suggests CBS is unserious about the tainted image that Rather now projects.
Consider this. When America Online held a poll of its customers about the anchors over the Thanksgiving weekend, asking them to rank the major anchors at excellent, good, fair, or poor. With more than 110,000 responding, Tom Brokaw's ratings were 41 percent excellent to 11 percent poor. Rather's numbers were almost a mirror image: 22 percent excellent to a whopping 41 percent poor. Rather is now irreparably damaged goods, the Case Study of a seminar in journalism school called How Not to Do It. CBS still needs to release its independent report from Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi and take some strong actions, including firings, to clear the air and demonstrate it won't happen again.
Second, conservatives know the journalistic culture which produces so much liberal media bias is not likely to diminish by changing the faces of the talent. That's not to say a Dan Rather or a Tom Brokaw hasn't wielded great power over our political culture. They certainly have. But bias is an institutional problem throughout the national 'news' media - identified by former long-time CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg - bathed in the arrogant notion that their point of view is always accurate and always relevant to any story in which they choose to inject it.
Many people are quick to believe that conservatives are Rather "haters" or Brokaw "haters," delighting in their departures. That's not the right response. Conservatives and liberals have rallied around both men and their networks at times of national crisis. Dan Rather has been fiercely patriotic; his emotional breakdown on the David Letterman show after 9-11 was no act. Tom Brokaw has done much to offer honor to the generation that fought World War II. We can be generous about their long service.
In Rather's case, however, we must also be clear that he crossed a line of trust on the Bush "memos" that should never be tolerated in any media outlet, no matter how small. And while Brokaw never may have been this blatant, he's earned hundreds of demerits over the years through his constant attacks on conservatives.
Just like CBS, the succession at NBC is no reason to suspect the liberal bias problem is going away. After all the helpful public-relations spin that Brian Williams knew Dale Earnhardt and loves NASCAR races, his on-air record over the years suggests a blue-state mindset will remain. After all, how NASCAR-sensitive is it for Williams to suggest it should be seen as "downright unpatrotic" to drive an SUV, as he said in a 2002 newscast?
Two major anchors may be going away, but the TV news remains, and it's still the largest sphere of media influence. So conservatives will still be watching and taking notes on how the new anchors live up to Dan Rather's often-stated (and too often violated) promise to "play no favorites and pull no punches."