Dan Rather

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(HOST) The departure of Dan Rather as anchorman of the CBS Evening News has commentator Barrie Dunsmore thinking about network television news – past and future.

(DUNSMORE) We know the Republican/Right is happy to see the demise of Dan Rather. But I would guess that more than a few eyebrows were raised when the venerable Walter Cronkite took several tough shots at his successor on CNN the other night.

Most people attributed this to Cronkite’s unhappiness that, 24 years ago, he was pushed out early to make room for Dan. Actually, that’s not the real story. At the time, CBS had a mandatory retirement age of 65. To ease his departure from the anchor chair, Cronkite was given an office and a small staff at CBS headquarters and was promised he would play a future role with CBS News as a consultant and contributor to news specials. But Rather wanted no part of having the most trusted man in America, as Cronkite was then known, breathing down his neck – and he made that very clear to the management. As a result, Cronkite had virtually no post-retirement career at CBS, and that’s the real reason for his grudge against Rather.

With Rather saying good-bye last night, and NBC’s Tom Brokaw having bowed out three months ago, that leaves just Peter Jennings of ABC News as the last member of the triumvirate of television anchormen who brought us the news for the last quarter-century. Jennings’ contract is up in July. He may stay on for another year or two. But his side-kick Ted Koppel of Nightline is going to leave his program fairly soon and will move to the Sunday program, This Week.

Now all this is not the end of the world as we know it – and I promise you that none of these gentlemen is worried about the size of his social security check. But it does strike me that American television news will be significantly diminished with this group of seasoned, authentic journalists out of the picture. CBS is going to try to put together a team of anchors younger and hipper than old Dan. NBC is touting Brokaw’s replacement Brian Williams as a NASCAR kind of guy. Who knows who will replace Jennings and Koppel. In these days of anti-intellectualism, personified by the man in the White House who tries to make us forget that he went to Yale and Harvard, it’s a good bet future anchors will not be journalistic renaissance men and women.

There’s a tendency today to suggest that television news really doesn’t matter anymore. But tell that to the Arabs of the Middle East who were so inspired by the television coverage of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution and the remarkable Iraqi election that they have taken to the streets to demand their own versions of freedom and democracy. Quite clearly, television news remains a powerful medium, but – whether for good or ill – has always depended, and will continue to depend, on the character and integrity of those who decide what does, and does not, get on the air.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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