Man Without Qualities

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Saving Private Rather: The Pajama Game

Former CBS News executive Jonathan Klein famously dismissed a blogger as just some "guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas." He probably didn't know the Dan Rather story Mr. Klein was then defending had displaced another highly questionable item Sixty Minutes had produced in collaboration with Joshua Micah Marshall, a particularly self-indulgent and partisan pajama boy. The irony suggests a way of perhaps salvaging something of the CBS News investment in Dan Rather and Sixty Minutes.

CBS should admit that Dan Rather's cover as "objective" has been irretrievably blown by this debacle. But that doesn't mean Mr. Rather has to go, although the New York Times is now reporting he is to be out by spring, 2005. Instead, Mr. Rather could be paired in his newscasts as a frank voice of the left with a younger, more conservative co-anchor - in the manner of Hannity & Colmes. Mr. Rather could provide the liberal view, as Mr. Colmes does, with the new co-anchor providing the conservative angle. The new co-anchor doesn't have to be as conservative as Mr. Hannity, indeed, the new co-anchor could be more of a intellectual libertarian than a traditional conservative. Where does the Josh Marshall involvement come in? Just this: CBS could get a leg up on Fox by choosing the new co-anchor to be a blogger, and have him (or her) remain a real blogger. Obviously, this would call for someone with lots of energy and scope. Hugh Hewitt, Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds come to mind, but there are others. Coincidentially, a amazingly dreadful article in the New York Times magazine today refers to each of the latter three as a "credentialed gentlemen" - with Glenn Reynolds bizarrely termed "a conservative law professor whose blog, Instapundit, is read faithfully at the White House." I don't know about the White House claim - and, as is increasingly the case, the Times provides no evidence. But Mr. Reynolds is not a "conservative" as that term is generally employed in political discourse in this country.

Pairing Mr. Rather with a more conservative/libertarian would have several advantages. It would honestly admit what Mr. Rather is - and let him continue to do what he likes to do: slanting stories to the left while asserting he is merely pursuing "truth." Increasing the political diversity of CBS News, might reduce the risk that fatuous stories that only seem reasonable to those of a certain partisan orientation would reach the air in the first place. Partisan flavored stories that do reach the air would come with some skeptical commentary from the co-anchor (that would be his or her job). The co-anchor could be younger and better looking than what is seen now. And if he has to contend with real-time skepticism, Mr. Rather would seem less overbearing, self-satisfied and downright Stalinist - which would be a welcome relief.

Mr. Rather's terrible ratings might even improve.

Of course, that all assumes that Viacom actually wants to save CBS News, which loses lots of money. All broadcast network news divisions almost always have lost money. But times have nevertheless changed in a big way: in the old days network news divisions at least set the agenda for a campaign and national news coverage generally. The Sixty Minutes debacle has shown in spectacular fashion that not to be the case - although the inroads of bloggers and cable have long been known to anyone who cared to look. That, in turn, means that the ultimate corporate owners of these networks, and the owner's CEO's, no longer have the influence and bragging rights they once had. No wonder Sumner Redstone, chairman and CEO of Viacom, said of Mr. Rather's memo debacle "My reaction from the beginning was one of severe distress." That's probably not the half of it.

Something else has changed, too: The Federal Communications Commission at one time required any broadcast network to maintain a big news division. So if CBS wanted to make money on "I Love Lucy" it had to lose some on Walter Cronkite. That is probably no longer the case. Under Michael Powell, the FCC has taken a vastly more free market approach to broadcast regulation, an approach that recognizes the many new cmpeting electronic sources for news and information. Sumner Redstone specifically cited the FCC's degegulation policies when he backed George Bush over John Kerry. In short: The FCC would probably not be a substantial obstacle to a major contraction of CBS News. Given the obvious CBS News Democratic slant, it's hard to see a Republican controlled Congress rising up over such a regulatory stance.

There are increasing concerns from within CBS News that Viacom might take advantage of this debacle to rationalize the economics of its news division generally. Since the network news divisions can no longer set the national agenda or deliver bragging rights, and the current Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission probably doesn't care much whether a broadcast television network even has a big news division, and the news division loses lots of money, why the heck does Viacom or Disney or General Electric want one, anyhow? And no wonder Mr. Redstone is keeping all of his options open:

When asked if he sees a need for a change at the News division, he says: "I think it would be too early for me to judge. I intend to maintain a kind of independent view until I see what this panel has to report. And then you can assume that whatever is appropriate will take place."

Mr. Redstone says he votes for the interests of Viacom, and therefore this liberal Democrat prefers Mr. Bush over John Kerry. Is it in the interest of Viacom or Mr. Redstone to keep CBS News around in anything like its current bloated form?

Hard to see why.

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