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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 March, 2005, 00:34 GMT
The changing face of US news

By Justin Webb
BBC Washington correspondent

One of America's best-known news presenters retired on Wednesday after 24 years at the helm of the CBS evening news.
CBS news anchor Dan Rather
Mr Rather resigned a year earlier than planned as CBS' nightly news anchor

Dan Rather, who is 73, has left a year earlier than planned following a bruising fight with the Bush administration during the election.

There have been many sentimental tributes from Mr Rather's colleagues and fellow news anchors. But many Republicans are cheering his departure.

Marked man

Mr Rather is a controversial figure. He is not lacking in self belief: he says he has had the best job in the world and hopes to be remembered as someone who didn't "sell out".

Nor is he lacking in oddness: he used to sign off with the single word: "Courage." Nobody quite knew why.

Richard Nixon
Republicans thought Mr Rather was biased after an exchange with Mr Nixon
Among the moments that will be remembered is his confrontation with President Richard Nixon during a 1974 press conference.

When Mr Nixon asked him: "Are you running for something?" Mr Rather shot back, "No sir, Mr President. Are you?"

It wasn't exactly heavyweight political interviewing, but it got up Mr Nixon's nose and since then Republicans have had his number.


So they whooped with glee when last year, during the presidential election campaign, Mr Rather made a catastrophic error.

He fronted a report that President Bush had been treated leniently in the National Guard during the Vietnam era.

The report was based on documents with word processed typefaces. They could not have been written in the 1960s and appeared to be fake.

The internet bloggers went to work and Mr Rather had to back down.

Liberal bias?

According to former Bush speechwriter David Frum, the cat has been let out of the bag. The network news was always biased against the right, and, he says, the willingness of Mr Rather to fall for a hoax is simply proof of that.

Not so says Mr Rather's predecessor, the legendary Walter Cronkite.

former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite
Mr Cronkite says CBS made mistakes but is working to regain the public trust
Mr Cronkite, speaking to me in the New York CBS office he still inhabits in spite of being 89 years old and not having read the news for 24 years, said the network had been in the wrong but had conducted a thorough review and was back on track to regain public trust.

Mr Cronkite is charming. He is plainly hard working. One has to wonder why he still comes into the office.

He speaks with great authority and with none of the pomposity of those who have followed him to the anchor's chair.

But he might be out of touch.

Changing face of news

As Frank Sesno, the former CNN political correspondent and now journalism professor, told me in his Washington office, the internet bloggers now rule the roost.

Journalists have always been in a fox hole but the shooting is now 24/7 and coming from 360 degrees.

Professor Sesno says this is not necessarily a bad thing.

If facts are checked by many more sources then the truth is likelier to be told.

But, at the same time, there is a risk that journalists and the organisations they work for will hunker down and simply not risk any original journalism. They will not think it worth the effort.

There is one point that David Frum and Walter Cronkite agree on: Network news in its current form is hopelessly inadequate as a real source of information about the modern world.

Mr Frum blames the relentless diet of health stories dressed up as news. Mr Cronkite blames the lack of time given to foreign affairs.

Perhaps Mr Rather has bowed out just in time.

Watch Dan Rather sign off for the final time

US news anchor Rather signs off
09 Mar 05 |  Entertainment
Dan Rather: America's news anchor
24 Nov 04 |  Entertainment
US network reels from report
12 Jan 05 |  Americas
US news anchor Rather to retire
23 Nov 04 |  Americas
CBS admits error over Bush memos
20 Sep 04 |  Americas
US media: The great divide
27 Sep 04 |  Americas

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