Jan 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Brandon Tartikoff, bless his memory, used to tell great stories about, among other things, the cold-heartedness of showbiz. He and his legendary wife, Lily, were attending a fashionable fund-raiser at one of the big talent agencies headquartered in Beverly Hills, and Brandon noticed Chevy Chase standing not far away.

As it happened, Chase’s ill-fated talk show on Fox had just met its ill fate and been canceled. The place was absolutely jammed to the rafters with guests, Brandon said, but even so, “There was this moat around Chevy, a complete circle, and no one wanted to cross it and be seen with him.” At the moment, Chase represented that most dreaded of showbiz bugaboos: failure.

Whether any human moats have formed around Dan Rather at cocktail parties lately I do not know, but he certainly is getting cold-shouldered to bits in television, where he is associated with the fiasco surrounding a “60 Minutes Wednesday” report on the years George W. Bush spent in the National Guard. Documents used in the report may have been forged-no one’s proved positively that they were-and, after a supposedly independent panel turned in a report on who was to blame, CBS boss Leslie Moonves fired four members of the staff, including the venerable and highly respected Mary Mapes.

Rather, meanwhile, was not heavily involved in the segment much beyond doing the on-camera reporting. He was occupied with urgent breaking news. No reasonable person could conclude that he was chiefly or even largely to blame for errors of fact and judgment in the “60 Minutes” piece, but America has no shortage of unreasonable people. Thus, there’s been a small but predictable chorus of cries for Dan’s head on a stick.

It’s fairly common knowledge that Rather spoke to CBS News management in defense of a goofball correspondent who was having a rough time and had fallen out of favor with the bosses. Rather reportedly helped secure the guy a larger severance check than had been planned. To show his gratitude as well as his classiness, the correspondent then ran off and began a new career writing books that trashed CBS News-portraying it as a virtual coven of Commies, Rather included. Through bad times and good, Rather has clung to the notion that his is an honorable profession and that most of the people in it are earnest and honest.

Moonves, meanwhile, has accomplished something akin to a miracle in turning CBS around over the past several years, especially in prime time, and has brought the network back with a lineup that never stoops as low as NBC’s or ABC’s have stooped, and no series he need feel ashamed of. Unfortunately, he hasn’t handled this “60 Minutes” flap with much fairness or finesse. Dan Rather has served the news division honorably and tirelessly for three decades, 24 of them behind the anchor desk of “The CBS Evening News,” but Moonves has been anything but supportive, at least publicly. Rather’s newscast is indeed third in the ratings now, but it had high ratings until the network lost a roster of valuable affiliates-sometimes being stuck with rinky-dink UHF stations even in major markets. This was during the dreadful Tisch era, sad bad days for the empire William Paley built.

With deplorable tactlessness, CBS shortened Rather’s tenure as anchor even before the report was issued. As was the case with icon and giant Johnny Carson at NBC, Rather is being treated like crap just as the hour of parting appears on the horizon. Bill Carter reported in The New York Times late last week that although it’s been understood that Rather will move from the “Evening News” over to the midweek “60 Minutes” show, Moonves is making noises to the effect that this can only happen if the midweek “60 Minutes” show is still there.

If he’d wanted, Rather could have distanced himself from the “60 Minutes” segment the moment it fell under attack. He could have said he was not deeply involved with the actual reporting (as indeed he apparently wasn’t) and could quickly have passed the buck to any of the four people later fired, among many others. But Rather is a team player to the nth, o’th and p’th degrees. Standing by the segment was, to him, the same as standing by his colleagues in the news division, some of whom he has known and trusted for years.

Out in wettest Hollywood, Moonves and CBS News President Andrew Heyward are huddled together busily planning a huge makeover for the whole news division, hardly a logical response to one bum story. NBC didn’t revamp the news division after “Dateline” aired its infamous faked report on burning trucks or after the silliness of scheduling an O.J. Simpson interview without consulting any of Simpson’s army of lawyers. All these news divisions are, like newspapers, populated with human beings, and human beings are, at this writing anyway, highly fallible.

What lucky charm, meanwhile, does the slick and showbizzy Mr. Heyward wear around his neck? How did he get through this forest fire without even a singe? He brings new meaning to the term “survivalist.” There’s something disturbingly sniveling about his performance and the way he rode out the storm by hiding under his desk.

The “60 Minutes” embarrassment will continue to inspire all kinds of finger-pointing and breast beating and just plain bull in the months ahead. Dopey doper Rush Limbaugh was ready with his criticisms of the panel’s report seemingly the instant it appeared. Rush huffed that the report should have said that the fouled-up story was actually part of a vicious partisan political plot. Oh, shut up.

Pundit Howard Fineman, meanwhile, has seen in the bungled CBS story and the imminent de-throning of Rather nothing less than the death of professional broadcast journalism. It’s the equivalent of Chicken Little saying “The sky is falling” with one important difference: This time Chicken Little may be right. The Internet with its 24/7 output of blogger baloney ushers in a new age of cacophonous babble in which every news consumer can also be a news producer. The “information society” degenerates into an anarchy of gossip, rumors and opinions, all passed off as news.

Only the scrupulously uninformed will really be safe from contamination, and the network news departments will be too scared to air their own obituaries.