When Lawrence Tisch bought CBS in 1986 and announced plans to reduce spending on news by 10% and fire 215 editorial employees, Dan Rather, the broadcaster's star news anchor, criticised his new boss on the comment pages of the New York Times. For a week after the piece was published Rather finished each broadcast with the word "Courage". Rather finished his 24-year reign as one of the nation's three network news presenters this month with the same word. His departure marks the imminent end of an era. For the past two decades three men, Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, have dominated the three network news shows. Brokaw retired in December. Jennings, 66, is the last man sitting and most believe he will retire soon.
But the nature of Rather's leaving was even more emblematic than the fact of it. He left after a critical investigation into a flawed story he presented, defended and then had to apologise for in the run-up to the election last year. The story about US president George Bush's national guard service record was found to be based on false documents and pursued with a "myopic zeal" that cost four of his colleagues their jobs. Meanwhile ratings for all three nightly news broadcasts have slumped by almost a half in the past 14 years. Elsewhere everything from Janet Jackson's breast to bloggers on the hunt for scalps in both press and broadcasting have shaken the media's confidence. Whereas "courage" was once a call to arms for Rather's immediate colleagues it now seems like an appeal to the entire industry not to desert their posts.
"It's somewhere between crisis and a panic," says Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, New York. "The generation that lived through Woodward and Bernstein and Vietnam has almost gone. They had an idea that they could make a difference and that they were a force. It might have been pompous but it was there."
The numerous assaults on the mainstream media are not related and many, like CBS's Bush story, are self-inflicted. The mea culpas at the Washington Post and New York Times over their failure to hold the Bush administration to account in the run-up to the war have nothing to do with the jail threat to two reporters for refusing to divulge their sources. Indeed one Times reporter, Judith Miller, is a key perpetrator in the first and a victim in the second.
Similarly there is no link between the plagiarism scandal at USA Today and the New York Times, which cost both the editor and his deputy their jobs, and the hostility from Bush's White House and its activist base across the board. Yet together, alongside new technologies, circulation that has either plateaued or is plummeting, they have all converged to create a state of siege. "There is a perception that the media has failed," says Michael Wolff, a media commentator and Vanity Fair columnist. "There is a general understanding that something has gone radically wrong here." It is a feeling coming from both outside the industry and from within. Gitlin was recently invited to a meeting at the Times to discuss how to combat the erosion of confidence and stagnant sales. "There was a real sense of urgency," he says. "They were asking some fundamental questions. It was not a casual exercise."
Most commentators believe that underpinning this collapse in confidence is the drive for commercial concerns. Not only is a generation of famous faces almost gone, but the generation of paternalistic family concerns that founded many of newspapers and TV stations has long gone. "These organisations are not being run by news values," says Eric Alterman, the media columnist for the leftwing magazine, The Nation. "Commitment to the news is not there as it once was."
"The media has gone from being a relatively discrete business to a huge industry," says Wolff. "It's impossible to hold on to the pretence that the media is independent. Disney and Viacom don't have a political bias as much as a bias about what's going to be good for them."
What is good for them is generally lower taxes and a corporate-friendly environment. This happens to be the agenda of the party in control of both Houses of Congress and the White House, which holds the press in particular contempt.
"They don't represent the people any more than other people do," said White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, about the press in an interview with the New Yorker. "In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for the election ... I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function."
Recent scandals involving White House departments paying sympathetic commentators for favourable coverage gave a good indication of how Bush would like his journalism - bought. But to those even thinking about stepping out of line the administration issues stern warnings. Jennings has interviewed every president since Nixon, apart from Bush. Before he did a story on a senior White House figure last year he was told by one staffer "It better be good." "Which I thought was rather naked," said Jennings. "It wasn't a threat, but it didn't sound like a joke."
Those who actually do step out line, like Leon Smith, the editor of the Lone Star Iconoclast from Bush's home town of Crawford (which backed Democrat John Kerry during the presidential election), can expect tough treatment. "Several avid Bush supporters have told us that the days when newspapers publish editorials without personal repercussions are over," writes Smith in the current issue of British Journalism Review.
Efforts to restrict access from the top are combined with efforts to exploit all possible forms of access from below. The Republican party's huge activist base acts as a permanent and effective lobby dedicated to monitoring and mocking what they regard as the "liberal media".
According to Mediaweek magazine, 99.8% of all complaints to the Federal Communications Commission came from just one source - the Parents Television Council, a rightwing organisation dedicated to fighting indecency on television. This is not new. "For the past 30 years the pressure on the mainstream media has always come from the right," says Columbia's Gitlin. But it is now at a new level.
"They have reached critical mass," says Alterman. "They got their own TV show [Rupert Murdoch's Fox News]. They totally dominate Talk Radio and they have activist organisations that do nothing but intimidate."
New technologies, from 24-hour cable news to blogs and other websites, have merely accelerated and exacerbated both the intensity of the commercial pressure and the criticism, which also comes from the Left, although to less effect. "There is a vast information industry which does not have the resources to gather information," says Wolff, referring to bloggers. "So its primary job becomes commenting on the part of the media that does have the resources to gather information. The media itself has become a primary news story."
At a forum last year attended by Jennings, Brokaw and Rather, Rather referred to the effects that such persistent campaigning have on editorial judgments. "It creates an undertow in which you say to yourself, 'you know, I think we're right on this story, I think we got it in the right context, I think we've got it in the right perspective, but we better pick another day." They have yet to pick Rather's successor, but when they do his staff would do well to hand him a one-word remit for his tenure in the anchor's seat - courage.