With the recent toppling of CBS's Dan Rather and now CNN's top news executive, Eason Jordan, I think we can declare without fear of contradiction that rigor mortis is settling over the carcass of the Fourth Estate.
At least as we once knew it.
I make this pronouncement without pleasure, and in fact, suggest that we're really witnessing a double funeral. One is for traditional journalism as the omnipotent gatekeeper of information. As bloggers - authors of Web logs - have gleefully pointed out the past several days, everyone with access to the Internet is now a journalist.
Given the "instanaeity" of the bloggers' electronic encampment, known as the "blogosphere" - enabling real-time posting of news and commentary - newspapers and even broadcast media have become the news cycle's Sunday drivers.
As a longtime observer of the blog phenomenon - awed by the volcanic energy and talent that erupts by the nanosecond and flows without pause - I'm a fan. But I'm also wary of such unbridled power. For all their attractive swashbuckling and bravura, bloggers also can become a cyber-mob that acts, as mobs do, without conscience or restraint.
Thus, the other funeral is, I fear, for our freedom of speech. Not the kind we once worried would be quashed by government jackboots, but the sort that restricts the very thing bloggers represent - the freewheeling, unfettered expression of thoughts and ideas without fear of censure. Or without the life-altering, career-busting personal demolitions we've witnessed recently.
Except for the fact that they are both larger than life, professionally and symbolically - and except that bloggers initiated the heat that eventually brought them down - Rather and Jordan are dissimilar cases.
Rather knowingly used unsubstantiated "evidence," known to be flawed if not faked, to try to bring down the president of the United States during an election year. After enduring a blog siege hitherto unseen or experienced by anyone of his standing, Rather announced that he would step down as the "CBS Evening News" anchor.
By contrast, Jordan said something stupid, even indefensible, but his comments were in much different circumstances - during an off-the-record panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. A couple of weeks later, following intense criticism, he resigned his post.
What Jordan essentially said, for those who were in orbit the past two weeks - or who rely strictly on mainstream media for information - was that the U.S. military had targeted journalists in Iraq, where some 36 journalists have been killed since 2003.
When challenged on the spot by members of the audience and other panelists, including U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, Jordan backed off. Although a transcript of the discussion has not been made available, Jordan's subsequent explanation was that he was trying to make the point that some journalists had died not as "collateral damage," but because of U.S. military carelessness, recklessness or some derivative thereof.
It's still unclear what he said, precisely, but obviously, if the U.S. military were targeting journalists - or if Jordan really believed they were - then that story wouldn't be broken at an off-the-record forum. CNN wouldn't waste such a headline on a panel chat.
Even so, it was careless, which Jordan apparently realized the moment he was challenged. Whatever he meant, the response from bloggers was immediate and ferocious. A news tidbit of this voltage, wherein an executive of what's arguably the world's most powerful media entity impugns the U.S. military, is the kindling of arsonists' dreams.
Not to mention manna to Islamist recruiters who are delighted when one of our own confirms their belief that all Americans are evil. For his contribution to our enemies, Jordan should be deeply ashamed. But should he have lost his job?
Maybe there's more to the story; maybe his star was already in descent and this was the excuse CNN had been looking for. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that most of us say dim things, especially in relaxed settings that are understood to be off the record, that aren't meant for global parsing.
The fact that the mainstream media didn't initially report Jordan's remarks probably has more to do with this recognition than with any attempt to protect fellow journalists, as was charged after a blogger broke the story. "Off the record" means you're allowed to say what you think with impunity and live to see your next paycheck.
Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at buzzmachine.com, told media critic Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that "off the record" is dead. Jarvis, who also said he was after the truth, not Jordan's head, may be right. But as we expand the boundaries of speech - inviting all comers to the virtual newsroom and reporting every utterance without contextual distinction - we may find that we no longer feel free to speak freely.