Ah, the ironies of history. As I sit in Boston's Logan Airport watching CNN (goodness knows I would never watch CNN in the privacy of my home), I see the news anchor glumly state that CBS News has now verified that it cannot authenticate documents that supposedly prove President Bush didn't fulfill his duties in the National Guard way back in the 1970s. CBS' impeccably honest source, Bill Burkett, has admitted that he misled CBS. Apparently, Joe Lockhart of the John Kerry campaign spoke with Burkett at the behest of CBS News. And Dan Rather is somewhere in New York, high atop the CBS headquarters, zapping himself with a cattle prod.
It's more substantive than President Clinton's perjury before Congress. After all, Clinton's perjury was simply a liar doing what he did best, in front of the American people and America's elected officials. Sure, it was a crime, but then again, Clinton never claimed scrupulous honesty.
It's more substantive than the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioning John Kerry's medal-winning time in Vietnam. While that story has legs, it still revolves around decades-old information and discusses the problems of one soporific politician.
And it's certainly more substantive than the series of trumped-up scandals against President Bush, whether it's the Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame CIA "scandal," the missing weapons of mass destruction or the "Mission Accomplished" banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.
Only the Watergate scandal compares in magnitude to this CBS scandal in the pantheon of influential political events. Watergate ousted Richard Nixon, ushered in a period of distrust in the presidency and provided the culmination to a decade of irresponsibility and moral decline. But most of all, Watergate changed the face of the media forever.
During the Vietnam War, the mainstream media realized its power. During the Nixon administration, the media turned from objective observers into firebrand crusaders. As historian Paul Johnson puts it, "the electoral verdict of 1972 was overturned by what might be described as a media putsch. The 'imperial presidency' was replaced by the 'imperial press.'"
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.