washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

Oh, For Cryin' In the Buttermilk

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A15

"We used to say that if a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun."

Um, who exactly was it who used to say that? Leaving aside the question of what on earth it means, which would confound a tag team of Stephen Hawking and Immanuel Kant, did any human being ever utter that sentence before Dan Rather did on election night?

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Rather hangs up his spurs tomorrow, ending his marathon 24-year run as anchor of the "CBS Evening News." It will be an unhappy day, not only for connoisseurs of the lapidary truths known as "Ratherisms" but also for the rest of us who depend on television news. To steal a quotation from Rather himself, our "moon has just moved behind a cloud."

Perhaps only at CBS News could the scaling back of a 73-year-old man's workload (Rather isn't even retiring; he'll continue as a correspondent for "60 Minutes II") be considered premature. Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney and "60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt are all in their eighties. Among the generation that rose to prominence during the golden years, the era when CBS was the "Tiffany network," Rather is practically The Kid. He's covered every big story since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Surely he's earned an occasional day off.

But, of course, it is premature because of the way he's going out, amid controversy that's "hotter than the Devil's anvil." The now-familiar tale lends itself to borrowed Ratherisms: He broadcast a critical story on President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service, irate bloggers "beat him like a rented mule," the sourcing for the story turned out to be "thin as turnip soup," the documents underlying the piece were as authentic as "a Times Square Rolex," a blue-ribbon investigative panel tore through the story "like a tornado through a trailer park," and Rather found himself at the point where "he's got his back to the wall, his shirttails on fire and the bill collector's at the door."

Rather made things worse by standing by the story long after it had begun to crumble. He should have followed his own advice: "Don't taunt the alligator until after you've crossed the creek." The story in question was an incompetent piece of journalism, no doubt about it. But I, for one, am genuinely sorry to see Big Dan go.

Not just because I'll miss the Rather-isms and his "Gunga Dan" theatricality, and not just because his edginess made for compelling television -- the "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" sense that just about anything could happen to this man, and that it might well happen on the air. His colleagues in the uber-anchor triumvirate never gave off any of that dangerous vibe. You get the sense that the worst thing that could happen to Peter Jennings would be that the sommelier brought him an unsatisfactory bottle of wine; and as for Tom Brokaw, well, you doubted he ever had a bad day in his life.

I'll miss Rather because, sitting in that anchor chair, he was a living link to the era when the network news departments mattered -- when they tried their best each day to cover the news of the past 24 hours and still had the resources to do what was, in retrospect, a damn good job at it.

CBS, NBC and ABC used to have bureaus around the world. Now they'll still send correspondents to a big story such as Iraq or the tsunami, but a lot of their foreign reports consist of footage shot by local crews in Caracas or Bombay and narrated by a correspondent in New York or London who hasn't set foot within an ocean's breadth of the actual event being covered. The networks used to try to cover big stories even if they were complicated and not particularly television-friendly -- even if they didn't come with pictures. Now they still do "issue" pieces, but their estimation of the public's attention span has so declined that they oversimplify the issues to the point where the viewer learns nothing new.

Much of their former terrain has been ceded to the cable networks, which are increasingly focused on delivering analysis rather than news. By "analysis" I mean shouting. Newspapers are still around, at least most of them, but many are concentrating on survival and not much more. The Internet, with its openly partisan bloggers, at least provides access to documents, transcripts, video footage -- the raw material for news stories, which people have to assemble for themselves. The amount of information at our fingertips has increased exponentially, yet I wonder if the nation is really better informed.

Maybe it is. But Dan Rather is a tough, experienced reporter who has always done his best to speak truth to power, and I'll miss him. I'll watch him sign off tomorrow night, and it'll be sadder than a three-legged dog at an ice-skating rink on prom night in Abilene with . . .

Help me out here, Dan.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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