I watched the Dan Rather tribute video on CBS with a real sense of awe. He'd covered Kennedy's assassination, Nixon and Watergate, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, hurricanes. He'd interviewed Saddam Hussein. I watched him go through various stages of 80s news graphics and sideburn prominence - he'd just been around for so long. Forty-four years at CBS News, 24 years in the anchor chair. Said colleague and competitor Tom Brokaw: "He wore CBS on his sleeve."
Which makes his departure this week so sad -- and so bewildering. Much ink has been spilled on the how and why of the split, but it is bewildering to me on a larger level.
Aside from whatever may have been "due" to Rather after years and years of service to the network, it puzzles me that he wouldn't be considered a valuable – indeed, vital – resource for the newsroom. Yet CBS isn't the first network to seek out new, younger blood. Not by a long shot – it's a trend across the networks embodied by the ascension of Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper and, briefly, Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. But is the pruning of elder statesmen from the ranks part of the natural order, or will the de-graying of the newsroom ultimately lead to a greening of the news?
This occurred to me earlier this week after Anderson Cooper's highly-anticipated, much-touted interview with Angelina Jolie. General consensus: not great. Though it may well have been a ratings watershed for CNN, by all accounts it was, well, boring. Cooper was cast as an inexpert and slightly clumsy interviewer (which was apparent from the promos featuring him asking, wide-eyed, "So … what was it like giving birth?" Cringe). As he said on his blog, "I was free to ask [Angelina] whatever I wanted." Knowing that, his shortcomings as an interviewer are even more apparent.
I don't mean to pick on Anderson here (cough, dimples and blue eyes, cough), but that interview is precisely what I mean by the word "green": he was a little cowed by his subject, and a little puffed up with his own importance in being singled out by her. He's earnest and that's one of his endearing qualities, but I have no doubt that a more seasoned reporter would have been more exciting to watch, and learn from.
For newbies, it's the latter that is in danger of being lost. Earlier this month, The Washington Post saw the departure of 70 experienced older staffers who accepted a buyout offer, described as leaving "a gaping hole in our institutional memory, with entire areas of coverage that must now be learned." When I recall the outpouring of memories following the death of David Rosenbaum, I remember what a beloved resource he was said to have been -- a "one-man J-school" with "breath-taking institutional knowledge." I have no doubt that Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, and even Aaron Brown (remember him?) would provide an impressive curriculum for younger journalists eager to learn.
Of course, experience costs money, and names like Dan Rather and Ed Bradley don't come cheap. There is an argument for leaving gracefully, as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Melanie McFarland points out: "[Y]ou know what happens when you overstay your welcome: You get cast out with a rough push instead of a friendly wave." Still, it's clear Rather wanted to stay: knowing the end was coming he was still pitching stories and hoping for a reprieve. CBS had the upper hand in that situation – yet it let Rather go.
News anywhere – at CBS, The Post, NPR – is directly a function of who pitches, prepares and delivers it. Internal politics plays a role, of course (and here a nod must be given to how Rather succeeded Walter Cronkite, and outplayed and outlasted Connie Chung), insofar as those decisions have repercussions onscreen or in print every day. So it says something that CBS decided to cut Rather loose, underscored by Rather's marginalized role at "60 Minutes" even before he had to make way for Katie Couric, Lara Logan and Anderson Cooper.
(Of course, there's obviously another factor at play here: the National Guard scandal and the black mark that left on Rather's reputation, and the reports that CBS staffers felt that he ought to have resigned with Mapes & Co. after the report's authenticity was questioned. There is quibbling to be done as to whether that ought to vitiate a distinguished career. Go ahead and quibble, I'm leaving this aside.)
Ultimately, it comes down to decision-making about what needs to be put out there and who is best equipped to do it. These are management decisions made to permit the best editorial decisions in order to produce the best product (or, for some, the most watchable product). There is no question that the new breed of network stallions have their high points; indeed, despite never having helmed a nightly newscast one can hardly call Katie Couric inexperienced, and history has shown that she is not one to be underestimated (Katie, we're giving you a pass on the Runaway Bride). But in the starry dazzle of ratings, dimples and brilliant blue eyes, the lessons of experience may well be receding from view.
P.S. Public Eye: This column runs weekly. I should NOT be the third woman who's done it since OCTOBER. Editor's Note: It's not for lack of trying, but we'll re-double our efforts to find a "wide variety of voices."