Watergate began a period during which the media didn't just cover the news, they made the news. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became household names because of investigative reporting and became Hollywoodized heroes because of their tenacity and flair. Actors like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman used to play the president -- now, they played nebbish media folk uncovering corruption in Washington, D.C., with the help of some unnamed whistleblower.
Dan Rather was an integral part of this media revolution. He made his name by criticizing President Nixon -- and not just criticizing him but berating him. In one famous exchange, Nixon asked Rather, "Are you running for something?" Rather testily retorted, "No, sir, are you?" Verbal sparring with the president simply provided another way for media like Rather to prove their toughness.
James Fallows, a head speech writer during the Carter administration, sums up the problem (as quoted on RatherBiased.com): "The perceived lesson of Watergate in the White House press room is the Dan Rather lesson, that a surly attitude can take the place of facts or intelligent analysis. ... (O)ne sees reporters proving their tough-mindedness by asking insulting questions."
And now, Dan Rather has provided a fitting end to the era of mainstream media domination. With his downfall -- and you had better believe that this story will be printed in every obituary written about him -- comes the end of the trusted news anchor. We may never regain our trust in politicians, but at least we have lost our starry-eyed, wholehearted belief in the objectivity and honesty of the mainstream media.
Of course, the end was coming for a long time. Bernard Goldberg and Ann Coulter exposed the mainstream media; the growth of the Internet and talk radio provided competitive pressure; the 24-hour cable news networks, especially Fox News, rivaled the network news. But when the end comes, it always seems sudden. CBS News approached the cliff over a period of years, but it took only two weeks to send it reeling over the edge.