Dan Rather reflects critically on the so-called “Heroic Age” of TV news

CBS’s Dan Rather infamously dismissed bloggers who pointed out flaws in a “60 Minutes II” story on documents purporting to address George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard. (See “False Documentation? Questions Arise About Authenticity of Newly Found Memos on Bush’s Guard Service.”) Rather eventually apologized and announced his retirement after 24 years at the anchor desk.

The recent death of Larry King (CNN) and Roger Mudd  (CBS, PBS, and The History Channel), and retirement of Tom Brokaw (NBC) prompted Rather to reflect critically on era of TV journalism that he helped to create.

I have not been a regular viewer of TV news for decades, but I’m very familiar with all these names.

This picture shows Rather in 1981, congratulating Walter Cronkite after the latter’s final broadcast as CBS anchor.

Sometimes a moment comes that transports you back decades into the world of your past. I tend not to be consumed by nostalgia. As a reporter, I like to immerse myself in the present and to be prepared for the future. But every so often I can’t help but think of what was, and what then ensued.

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Now, as I enter my 90th year amidst a deadly pandemic and launching a new endeavor here, humility is very much on my mind. I desperately wish I had the vigor to be on the frontlines covering this moment in history and all that is happening on the world stage. Prudence, circumstance, and in truth, reality, dictate otherwise. At best, I hope to have whatever small impact I can find to offer my perspective on this national and global moment.

If heroism is equated with size and scale, then it may have been that. The three network news divisions were large, global, and well-funded affairs —especially CBS News, which had bureaus all over the world and reporters, producers, camera-people, and other working journalists in many U.S. cities. Then there were the ratings, and the ability to shape the national narrative.

The Internet was non-existent when I first assumed the anchor chair; same with cable news. Both of those would emerge, grow, slowly at first, and then explode in importance and influence. Newspapers, especially local newspapers, were much more robust and numerous then than now, but the reach of the big ones, like the New York Times and Washington Post was still more regional and they were limited in their ability to shape daily news cycles, especially late in the day, by their printing schedules. (One note of context: there had been a truly “heroic age” of radio news, led by the great Edward R. Murrow.)

The combination of ratings and reach of television news brought a lot of power, which itself is a double-edged sword. I like to think that all of the networks on the main wielded the power we had in largely a responsible manner. We felt a duty to be honest brokers of information, and we knew that what we reported could have a big impact, in the United States and even abroad. There was a belief that there should be a healthy amount of reporting on foreign news, which was made easier to justify by the Cold War.

Source: A “Heroic Age” of TV News?