Brian Lowry

The fight over 24-hour cable news' negative impact on journalism is hardly new, but recent rounds have been fierce -- with past and present industry heavyweights trading blows.

In this corner, anchors emeritus Ted Koppel, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, as well as Johnny-come-lately funny guy (turned astute media critic) Jon Stewart.

In the opposite corner, participants in the new status quo, among them MSNBC's tag-team partners Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, and funny guy (turned sharp-tongued commentator) Bill Maher.

The old guard -- including the aforementioned anchors who defined network news for a generation -- is clearly not happy with the drift of things. And not surprisingly, those currently in the opinion business aren't shy about defending themselves.

Former "Nightline" anchor Koppel ostensibly initiated the exchange, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that Fox News and MSNBC are "to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment," offering "avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan" opinion at a time where "the need for clear, objective reporting ... is probably greater than it has ever been."

In what has become a standard tactic, Olbermann used his own program to respond (as did rival Bill O'Reilly, in a rare show of unison), charging that Koppel's commitment to objectivity made him guilty of "pointless worship at the temple of a false god." He added, regarding press failures prior to the Iraq war, "When truth was needed, all we got were facts."

There were similar elements of this debate in Maddow's hourlong interview with Comedy Central's Stewart. "The Daily Show" host argued that the structure of 24-hour cable news is inherently flawed, compelling headliners to be more dramatic and urgent because of the amount of airtime they must fill.

To justify around-the-clock treatment on lesser stories in a cable news cycle built for watershed events like the Sept. 11 attacks, Stewart said: "You have to elevate the passion of everything else that happens ... that might even be somewhat mundane. The language then has to become sharper, louder, to cut through more and more of the noise."

Another former network stalwart,

Rather, contended during remarks at the Poynter Institute in September, "The public is not well-served by political coverage as it is," maintaining enterprises that ought to hold politicians accountable "just become transmission belts," failing to ask tough questions.

Unlike Koppel, Rather's assessment dealt not so much with opinion as the by-product of the bland talk-oriented even-handedness CNN seeks to achieve -- an environment where every debate must feature sparring by ideologically opposed pundits, without investing the time (or braving the controversy) to bother trying to determine who's actually right.

Finally, the Daily Beast reported that Brokaw expressed misgivings that the flap over Olbermann's donations to political candidates had "badly damaged MSNBC's reputation for independence."

If there's a theme here, it's a nagging sense that the news business as constituted isn't fulfilling its mission -- a view held not only by Stewart (who took it as the impetus for his Rally to Restore Sanity) but those who led the business into this century, whose tenures overlapped with the expansion to three news channels in the mid-1990s. And while Koppel and Rather are basically on the sidelines now, they have scant reason to speak up unless it's out of genuine concern.

Another interesting wrinkle is how hard MSNBC's marquee talent pushed back in their own defense -- with Olbermann, Maddow and Maher all denouncing the "false equivalence" of lumping MSNBC and Fox News together. Olbermann also questioned whether the late Walter Cronkite's "That's the way it is" ideal is really sufficient to the present times.

As for Fox News, as Stewart told Maddow, its defense mechanisms are more knee-jerk and primal -- namely, that any criticism of the channel is really an "attack," motivated by ideology (or jealousy), preempting the need to address such discussions on their merits.

Although Koppel's article makes clear he's disenchanted with TV news' current direction, he appears to harbor no illusions about triggering a shift away from cable's shrill, opinion-driven culture.

Talk is cheap, he wrote, and "The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible."

While contemplating Olbermann's reaction and wondering if my own naysaying could be attributable to misguided nostalgia, an urgent-looking email popped up from ABC News.

"Cynthia McFadden interviews Cher on her new film, 'Burlesque,' her dating life, career and motherhood," blared the headline.

But one program couldn't do the interview justice, apparently. Portions would play on Koppel's old home, "Nightline," "Good Morning America" and "20/20." And coming soon from ABC, this hard-hitting "Primetime" special: "Celebrity Plastic Surgery Gone Too Far?"

Once again, I felt secure in humming a Cher song -- the one about turning back time.