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Rather rose above blather of TV news

I confess to having a soft spot for Dan Rather, especially given the unceremonious sendoff he was given last week by CBS News.

After Rather spent 44 years gathering and delivering the news for the Tiffany net, the Eye declined to renew his contract, and put him out to pasture. (The effusive press release announcing his exit likened Rather to Murrow and Cronkite, but it came across as too little, too late.)

Not one to hide his disappointment, Rather has spoken publicly about being sidelined during the past 15 months. The web’s offer to stay on consisted of no more than an office and an assistant; it offered no direct responsibilities at any specific news show.

Rather’s fadeout definitively brings down the curtain on the anchor era. These folk, especially in their managing-editor roles, were a buffer for the news side against the encroachment of entertainment divisions that began when the nets changed ownership in the mid-’80s.

That shift in control helped usher in today’s news landscape, in which average Americans know more about — and probably care more about — Brangelina and Britney than they do about the bombing of Basra, breakthroughs in biotech or the battlelines in Congress.

Unlike his successor on “60 Minutes,” Anderson Cooper, Rather didn’t belong to the school of reporters who “feel the pain” of their interview subjects or make a big deal of sharing their pieties. (Cooper’s recent interview with Angelina Jolie was “liberally” soaked in such bathos.) To his credit, Rather is too ornery for celebrity suck-ups.

Now, I get that times have changed and that the democratization of news means comedians and gossipmongers should have just as much chance to front the news as people trained as journalists. But I’d still rather get my news from folks who have actually been in the trenches and gone mano a mano with moguls and miscreants — and don’t deliver every item with the chirpiness of “Headline News” or the stridency of talkradio.

I also get that the 18-34 demo (the only one webheads seem to think matters) no longer watches network TV news, and that even if it did, it wouldn’t want a “voice of God”-style anchor. (A surprising number of them, however, seemed to find Bob Schieffer a perfectly satisfactory replacement for Rather. Go figure.)

And yes, I also get that Rather made a major mistake in not sufficiently vetting the “60 Minutes II” report about Bush’s military service. But I’m not sure Rather’s share of the blame should have outweighed his long record of service.

There was always something engaging in Rather’s relish for the fray and fearlessness in the face of the rich and powerful. His folksiness could dissolve into corniness and his belligerence could betray personal bias, but little about him was pre-packaged or predictable. (At least not in the early decades of his career: His interview with Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war, however, came across as more of “a get” than “a get at” piece.)

At a time when government officials feel empowered to physically remove reporters from situations where they might find relevant news to report — places like Guantanamo or the recent protest at the Los Angeles urban farm — we need pugnacious types in the field more than we need perky and prettified readers bent on entertaining us.

Rather will apparently try his luck with new media next. He is weighing an offer to join Mark Cuban’s HDNet, an outlet that reaches just a smidgen of the audience the newsman attracted just 18 months ago.

Perhaps some of those young people who don’t watch network news might rediscover Rather on the Internet, a little like youngsters happened upon that “washed-up” crooner Tony Bennett some years ago.

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