After a long reign (and don't underestimate how much they feel they "reign" over American politics), two of the three evening news anchormen are headed for the door. Tom Brokaw declared long ago he would depart after a final newscast on Dec. 1. Just before Thanksgiving, Dan Rather added that he would step down from his TV throne in March, on the 24th anniversary of his debut.
No one, and I mean no one, inside or outside network news, would have predicted in January that Dan Rather would quit before his 25th anniversary in the anchor chair in 2006. That was the early betting line. Others thought Dan would stay as long as humanly possible and attempt to be the Strom Thurmond of network anchormen.
Don't buy the idea that this sudden retirement has nothing to do with Rather's embarrassing hoax on Bush's military service. Rather's ham-handed Bush-bashing, coupled with his embarrassing denials of the obvious, gave the CBS number-crunchers the opening. Now they can see if a non-Rather (or even an anti-Rather) can get CBS out of their long stay in the broadcast basement.
Conservatives know two things about the Rather mess. First, CBS can't fix the Rathergate problem by merely shifting Rather from "CBS Evening News" to "60 Minutes," which is where he unloaded his anti-Bush hoax in the first place. It's like the New York Times shifting Jayson Blair back to the Metro section, or the Washington Post demoting Janet Cooke to Style section profiles. It suggests CBS is unserious about the tainted image that Rather now projects.
Consider this. America Online held a poll of its customers about the anchors over the Thanksgiving weekend, asking them to rank the major anchors at excellent, good, fair or poor. With more than 110,000 responding, Tom Brokaw's ratings were 41 percent excellent to 11 percent poor. Rather's numbers were almost a mirror image: 22 percent excellent to a whopping 41 percent poor. Rather is now irreparably damaged goods, the case study of a seminar in journalism school called How Not to Do It. CBS still needs to release its independent report from Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi and take some strong actions, including firings, to clear the air and demonstrate it won't happen again.