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Rather Bad

Believe it or not, some people are still lamenting the decline of network news.

12:00 AM, Sep 14, 2004 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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JUST IN TIME to brighten our Sunday, the Washington Post broke with precedent and ran a hilarious piece of satire on its op-ed page, all about the "end of network news." The crisis, it appears, is that the networks have gone too commercial and ceded coverage of the political conventions to . . . Fox. The horrible ramifications of this dire development are gone into at length, with nary a word of the current sensation: the fact that CBS News, after spending most of the year serving as a transmission belt for DNC boilerplate, and as Book of the Week Club for Bush-bashing volumes, is now frantically trying to explain how it happened that their red-hot new memos--supposedly dating from 1973 and proving conclusively that George W. Bush deserted the Alabama National Guard in the heat of battle--came to be written on Microsoft Word. Also, why all of their witnesses are now calling them liars.

You might think the director of something called the "Project for Excellence in Journalism" might find this of interest, but the quest for excellence doesn't quite go this far. In fact, Tom Rosenstiel spends his time lamenting the fall-off of standards as the majestic networks give way. "What is lost in the cable obsession with 'live' is the chance to double-check, to rewrite, to edit. . . . What is lost with the passing of network TV, in other words, is the journalism of verification." Actually, in this case Dan Rather was "verified" by the Internet, which in a matter of hours had managed to round up hundreds of people, including some of the country's leading experts on documents, to expound in detail on the various howlers somehow missed by the "experts" of CBS News. Meanwhile, Rather is stonewalling like Nixon, whom he may have spent too much time studying in his own glory days. By the time they come to remove him, will Rosenstiel still be gassing on about Fox and the "prestige" of networks?

This is all hilarious, and great fun to follow, but it does have a serious side. Someone who says he's a serious journalist--not a pundit, not a talking head, not a commentator, but a neutral and serious journalist--is so obsessed with his longing to bring down a president that he turns his program into a campaign commercial for the opposite party, using fakes so egregious that bloggers had spotted them within hours, and then editing his program so that no dissenting voices were heard. You'd think this might have something to do with "excellence in journalism," but Rosenstiel's still obsessed with the "superb" coverage that we will be missing if the networks surrender to cable. As he puts it, "what is disappearing is an idealism about the potential of TV."

Well, to some of us out in the audience, Dan Rather has just carried this "potential" a little too far. "After this summer, Americans will no longer see network news in quite the same way," Rosenstiel tells us. Indeed.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.