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TV JOURNALISM CONTINUES TO TAKE HITS

Take a good hard look at "60 Minutes" this evening. And, if you're awake in front of a TV in time, CBS' "Sunday Morning" (9 a.m., Ch. 4) one of the hidden gems in all of network television.

They may be all that's left of network TV journalism vitality.

Ted Koppel has announced his retirement from "Nightline." And Peter Jennings' gravel-throated announcement of his lung cancer pointed to a future for the last of the Big Three news anchors that is, at the very least, uncertain (though a renewed Jennings after successful treatment would be a formidable force).

Its era has come and gone.

It remains an exquisite irony that "60 Minutes" -- the news magazine that first awakened network honchos to the ratings and profits TV news could rack up -- is the show that is now like the last union soldier standing at Little Big Horn.

Imagine "60 Minutes," with its roster of Methuselahs who, between them, have more facial wrinkles and unruly sprouts of hair than the entire on-camera population of ABC and NBC combined. It reigns in an era when youth has become the watchword of all media. Ratings remain healthy. And faith-destroying controversies pass it by.

Obviously, its denizens are all at a precious and precarious age but the show, so far, seems to be immune to programming mortality. Immune too -- so far -- is CBS' wonderful "Sunday Morning," the show invented by Shad Northshield for Charles Kuralt that is based on the oldest TV programming model of all -- "Omnibus," the NBC cultural magazine from TV's Jurassic Era.

Tim Russert is the only other figure in current network hard news to have a major life. And he, too, is the hood ornament on a TV relic -- Sunday's "Meet the Press" which was born before all-wheel drive and fast food were invented.

Television's prime-time news magazines mix crime and celebrity in a glossy variation on a subway tabloid (for all their swan-life bearing, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters are often thought to be regal versions of tabloid queens).

It's all Tower of Babel now in the Age of Information -- 24-hour cable news, Jon Stewart's nightly satiric triumph of truth over journalistic tradition, the Internet blogosphere. All of it is both killing network TV news and elevating to iconic, indispensable status whatever happens to remain.

The biggest shock, to many of us, is how sanguine we are about it all. I won't miss Koppel on "Nightline." I know how good the show was but I almost never watched it (more than once a year would be a lot). I don't miss Dan Rather either. I'm as sorry as anyone about Peter Jennings' current plight. I certainly wish him well but I don't find his absence much of a loss.

I do find that a TV world without Tom Brokaw is a bit more unsteady than I'd like it to be.

But the prospect of an embattled "60 Minutes II" on Wednesday possibly giving way to entertainment programming never filled me with any special regret at all, its breaking of the Abu Ghraib scandal notwithstanding. True, the world will be a much comfier place for pols when it goes but it would be interesting to see how the blogosphere filled the gaps.

"CBS Sunday Morning," on the other hand, is where a line needs to be drawn. The minute CBS decides that the show is ready for the junkyard is the moment when all of broadcast journalism completely loses all touch with intelligence and the vast landscape of contemporary civilization. It's the moment, as the retired folk singer might put it, when they pave paradise and put in a parking lot.

Let's all admit now that "60 Minutes" is a weekly miracle. Being frank here, its journalistic worth, from week to week, is erratic at best and dubious most of the time. I never expect illumination, deeper understanding or even much surprise from "60 Minutes" (unless Andy Rooney says something outrageously cranky and politically incorrect).

But it's still there, No. 14 with a bullet on your Nielsen hit parade, maintaining a gold standard of celebrity guests who consider it a kind of media throne on which to become King or Queen for a day. Wondering whether it matters or not has, itself, become a crashing irrelevance.

It's just there. Like the sun in the morning. And the moon at night.

As the kids might say, awesome, when you think about it.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com