A NEWSREADER BY ANY OTHER NAME, RIGHT?

The way the far right reacted to Dan Rather’s final broadcast last week reminded me of soldiers watching an enemy plane exploding in flames. I was waiting to hear: “We got one! We got one!”

This is both sad and silly. It’s sad, because everything today seems to be a right-or-left issue. And it’s silly, because any network news anchor – despite rugged claims of being a reporter and the occasional wearing of a khaki vest – mostly sits and reads a TelePrompTer.

Of course, the fault lies in the elevation of the network news anchor in the first place, to a status just short of papa familias. I’m not sure when this happened. It might have been when Walter Cronkite wiped a tear while reporting the Kennedy assassination.

Somewhere around then, whoever sat in that chair during our dinnertime broadcast became more than a TV reader; he was a voice box from the Almighty. Never wrong. Always fair. Gentle, yet firm. Honest and trustworthy.

Personally, I know very few human beings who meet such standards, much less people who work in television.

That was our first mistake. Elevating the status. The status led to fame. The fame led to ratings. The ratings led to money. The money led to ego.

And that turned anchors into targets.

The endless white noise

About this same time, another business was blossoming: the screaming political voices of radio, newspapers and cable TV, both right and left. These people are paid not to bring you all the news, but the parts that suit their purposes. They take those parts and hammer them, replay them, then hammer them some more.

In their worldview – and now the bloggers who serve as their worker bees – you are either for them or against them. And so it was only a matter of time before network news anchors, with their fame, status and ego, became juicy targets. After all, if talk show hosts could slant the news their way – and call it truth – there must be something wrong with anchors who didn’t follow suit.

Now, the truth of a network anchor is he’ll read a few sentences on a dozen or so stories a night, throw it to a correspondent here and there, and say good night. If you counted the 75-plus stories Dan Rather read a week, times 52 weeks, times 24 years on the air, you’d be amazed at how little opinion was actually expressed, and how few of those readings were controversial.

But no one is interested in the big picture anymore. It’s the small points, hammered home again and again. So critics jumped on Rather and CBS’s bungling of the verification of documents on President George W. Bush’s military service. And they cited “tough” interviews Rather once did with Bush’s father and Richard Nixon.

And they hammered, hammered, hammered.

The facts no longer matter

By the end, it felt as if Rather was being booted out with a scarlet letter. Never mind the National Guard story actually was reported on “60 Minutes Wednesday” not the “CBS Evening News” and Rather is keeping his job on “60 Minutes.” Never mind the essential story itself – that Bush received preferential treatment – has never effectively been disproved. Never mind other networks could be taken to task equally for their numerous mistakes in the run-up to the Iraq war.

What’s important today is that you take sides. So no one wants to believe Rather is essentially a newsreader who throws in laughable colloquialisms (“If a frog had side pockets, he’d carry a handgun”) and once in a while, like most human beings, lets his personal preferences show.

No. He has to be tool of the left. A windup doll programmed by Democrats to hypnotize American viewers.

You’re giving the man – and the job – too much credit. But then, Rather makes that mistake himself. His farewell broadcast, in which he urged the poor and the sick to show “courage,” was a perfect example of such hubris, the anchorman as pope.

There’s a reason why, in England and other places, they refer to anchor people as “newsreaders.” They understand that a desk chair is not a throne. And a retirement is not a coup.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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