Dan Rather commandeered the CBS Evening News for 24 years before sustaining a self-inflicted career wound. Conservatives knew of his liberal biases for years, as they did with Thomas, but the general public likely did not. That all changed with the forged National Guard documents, the media scandal which essentially ended Rather’s big-league news career. Rather didn’t just get caught propping up faux documents in an attempt to derail President George W. Bush’s attempt at a second term. He stood behind his shoddy reporting for far too long, proving he cared more about his image — and possibly swinging a presidential election — than the facts. Rather now toils for HDNet, an outlet with a minuscule audience.
Cronkite’s late career descent was far less dramatic and didn’t involve any ill-advised rants or journalistic malpractice. Instead, his final years revealed a man with a sometimes loose grip on logic and a hardcore liberal ideology that belied his fair and balanced reputation. Cronkite began penning op-ed pieces from a left point of view, and suddenly the notion of an old-school newshound was replaced by that of yet another partisan writer.
Did his views affect his coverage of the Vietnam War? Consider allegations Cronkite offered up CBS transportation services to a fierce anti-war critic during the 1960s. And there’s little doubt his proclamations regarding the Tet offensive proved a huge propaganda coup for the Viet Cong. Many years later, Cronkite hurt his legacy by saying presidential advisor Karl Rove “probably” arranged for an Osama bin Laden video to be released before the 2004 presidential election.
These individual events are having an impact on how people view the mainstream press. A September 2009 survey of 800 Americans revealed most people think the press is either “somewhat” or “very” biased, and helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008. The same poll found people viewed the press as being in favor of Obama’s health care plan, not treating it with appropriate skepticism and examination.
Consider recent comments by former New York Times Middle East bureau chief Chris Hedges, who rooted on Greek-style rioting in the United States last month. It should have been another Helen Thomas-type disaster, but most people wouldn’t know Hedges if he dropped in on their Thanksgiving dinner. His personal biases may be extreme, but he’s never been considered a recognizable — and reliable — name to the public at large.
But Thomas is, or rather was. And her downfall gives news consumers one more reason to be wary of traditional press.