Quick: What major television news organization spent much of 2004 under a cloud, beset by bloggers and angry critics scrutinizing its every report for signs of political partisanship, while a string of embarrassing scandals – including a career-threatening firestorm surrounding its most high-profile anchor – eroded its credibility?

If you said CBS News, well, you’re right. But if you said Fox News Channel, you’d be right too.

And the fact that, despite some similar ups and downs, CBS is coming off one of the worst years in its history while Fox is celebrating what is without a doubt its best yet, is a clear indicator of the massive forces that continued to shake the TV news business last year.

In objective terms, CBS and Fox went through similar ordeals. There was Memogate, the continuing debacle over a “60 Minutes” report by Dan Rather that relied on what appear to be falsified documents to attack President Bush’s National Guard record. CBS disavowed the report in September, saying it couldn’t vouch for the documents; an independent report into the story commissioned by the network is expected any day.

But then there was Loofah-gate, the dueling lawsuits between Bill O’Reilly and Andrea Mackris, a former producer who accused him of sexual harassment. Mackris’ brief included highly personal and highly embarrassing anecdotes about O’Reilly’s off-camera behavior that, if they didn’t directly impugn his journalistic integrity, certainly raised questions about the extent to which he practices the brand of Christian-oriented, family values conservatism he preaches.

The blogger factor

CBS had ratherbiased.com and a host of other bloggers – from a range of political perspectives – scouring its reports for signs of the left-wing bias that has practically defined Rather’s career in many eyes.

But Fox had Robert Greenwald, the producer and director of “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” to contend with. And of course there was Media Matters for America, an online campaign run by former conservative poster with messages such as “Hannity repeated misleading claim that “James Madison hired the first chaplain for the United States Congress.”‘

Also, in October, Fox’s Web site mistakenly posted a fake news story, written as a joke by political correspondent Carl Cameron, ridiculing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

So why does CBS depart 2004 with its tail between its legs – its anchorman retiring, its evening news ratings down 6 percent from last year, its president, Andrew Heyward, at risk of losing his job if the impending independent report reflects poorly on his role in Memogate – while Fox News uncorks the champagne to celebrate its unprecedented ratings victory over all three broadcast networks during the Republican National Convention, its doubling of CNN’s audience in prime time, and its outpacing ESPN, MTV and the Discovery Channel to become the ninth-most watched cable network of the year?

“Fox simply has an immunity to a lot of criticism,” said Jonah Goldberg, a conservative syndicated columnist and longtime critic of Rather and CBS. “The base who’s watching has already signed up; they’re loyal. And the only place they’re going to hear about criticism of Fox News is on Fox News.”

“It’s about the trajectory,” said Mark Feldstein, director of George Washington University’s journalism program and veteran of NBC News and CNN. “CBS used to be the Tiffany network, dominant in all respects, while Fox is on a roll and seemed to come out of nowhere.”

“These incidents become viewed through the lens of metaphor,” Feldstein said. “And Dan Rather represents not just CBS, but all of network news.”

The networks still grab a large chunk of the audience that watches TV because it’s on. Cable networks have to work harder for their audience, tailor a niche that their viewers will seek out among the clutter.

In other words: Rather had viewers, Fox has fans.

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