However the flap over CBS and those National Guard "memos" turns out, the past few weeks mark a milestone in U.S. media and politics. Along with the Swift Boat Veterans' ads, the widespread challenge to Dan Rather's reporting - to his credibility - means that the liberal media establishment has ceased to set the U.S. political agenda.
This is potentially a big cultural moment. For decades liberal media elites were able to define current debates by all kicking in the same direction, like the Rockettes. Now and then they can still pull this off, as when they all repeated the same Pentagon-promoted-torture line during the Abu Ghraib uproar. But the last month has widened cracks in that media monopoly that have been developing for some time.
Twenty years ago, those who sought a different point of view had few alternatives beyond The Wall Street Journal's editorial page and small magazines like National Review and The American Spectator. But in 1987 the Reagan Administration abolished the so-called Fairness Doctrine, whose main effect had been to stifle controversy on the airwaves by threatening stations with the obligation to provide equal time. The result was an explosion in political talk radio, led by Rush Limbaugh, who filled an unmet demand for right-leaning commentary.
Then, in 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News Channel, providing a "fair and balanced" alternative to CNN and the broadcast networks. By 2001 Fox had surpassed its competitors to become the top-rated cable news channel. And in the past few years, the "blogosphere" has allowed a million flowers to bloom. Anyone with a computer can start a Web log and become a pundit, and the smartest and most enterprising have developed loyal followings.
Thanks to these developments, the blue-state media elites no longer control America's political debate. Just in the past year, California voters elected Arnold Schwarzenegger despite election-eve groping charges trumpeted in the Los Angeles Times. A public outcry prompted CBS to cancel a mendacious miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan. And the mainstream media were dragged kicking and screaming into covering the Swift Boat Veterans' accusations against John Kerry. Even in South Dakota, bloggers and the Web have challenged the dominance that Tom Daschle's pals at the Argus Leader have long had on that state's political dialogue.
The current CBS "60 Minutes" imbroglio splendidly illustrates how the old political and media order has eroded. Democrats nominated Mr. Kerry in part because they thought his status as a Vietnam War hero would make him a formidable challenger - an assumption the liberal media echoed.
When that proved a miscalculation, Democrats talked about reviving the story about the President's National Guard service. Mr. Rather, a longtime Bush family antagonist and scourge of the political right, then broadcast the alleged memos from Mr. Bush's former commanding officer, and at least some of the old Rockettes (such as the Boston Globe) kicked in unison. Democrats released their own video on the subject, "Fortunate Son," not too long thereafter.
But then came the challenge to the memos' authenticity from the blogging world, which was quickly picked up by some mainstream media reporters (most aggressively ABC and the Washington Post). Soon enough the big story became not what Mr. Bush did during the war, but was Mr. Rather selling us more bull than a Texas ranch, as the CBS anchor might have put it on one of his newscasts.
Mr. Rather and his CBS bosses are sticking to their story, despite the growing evidence on the other side, leaving unanswered the biggest question of all: Who perpetrated this apparent fraud on CBS and the American voters? As journalists who sometimes go out on a limb ourselves, we'd have thought Mr. Rather's first recourse would not be to get mad but instead to double- and triple-check his sources.
That Mr. Rather isn't disclosing those sources, despite the damage to his reputation, raises the possibility that they are connected to the Democratic Party or the Kerry campaign. If that is true, then Mr. Rather would be revealed not just as a dupe, but also as the willing vehicle for a political dirty trick. In any case, there's no question that CBS is feeling the heat--and that it felt it far more quickly and intensely than it would have 20 years ago.
None of this is to suggest that the liberal media are dead, much less that conservatives now dominate the press corps. The traditional media remain important if diminished; liberals are trying to make inroads into talk radio (Air America) and cable news (Al Gore's prospective network), and there is no shortage of left-wing bloggers.
All of which is to the good. The Rather episode shows that a competitive media marketplace serves the cause of truth, and does so with impressive speed. It also reminds us of the dangers of arrogance and complacency - temptations from which none of us, regardless of ideology, are immune.