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Oprah's rise, and the fall of network news

In their hunt for ratings and revenue, TV news executives have replaced trusted journalists with sparkling personalities and incendiary demagogues.

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Oprah Winfrey has been the Walter Cronkite of the current generation, but even bigger. Some TV analysts suggest her recently announced departure from network TV in 2011 prefigures an uncertain future for CBS, ABC, and NBC. But the networks' retreat from the quality TV news of Uncle Walter's evening broadcasts to the safety of entertainment and information programming of Aunt Oprah has long been under way. As early as the mid-1950s, Edward Murrow, the pioneer of broadcast news, decried the corrupting influence of ratings lust on serious news.

Of course, Oprah doesn't pretend to be a journalist. But she's the top draw for a newsmaker looking to make a splash. Sarah Palin used Oprah to launch her book tour. And on Dec. 13, Barack and Michelle Obama will sit down with her for a special televised interview. Meanwhile, TV network news ratings continue to sink, which should inspire some soul-searching by those responsible for filling the vacuums left by Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw, the last generation of news greats.

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