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Early this week, CBS affiliate WWTV-WWUP in Cadillac, MI, decided to try out a bit of online democracy–and now they’re taking heat from all sides in the media wars.

Yesterday, as everyone knows, was Dan Rather’s last day as anchor for CBS News’ flagship evening broadcast. Rather’s long-planned retirement from the post was hastened after it became clear that his 60 Minutes II story questioning President Bush’s National Guard service had been based on forged documents. Rather, who has attracted conservative ire since his days as a CBS reporter in Vietnam in the 1960s, endured a firestorm of criticism over the botched story, ignited largely by conservative bloggers.

WWTV-WWUP is based in Cadillac, MI, and serves the northwest corner of the state’s lower peninsula. (Full disclosure: my parents have retired to that region, where I have also spent much time, and they were the ones who alerted me to this fascinating episode.) Monday evening, the station published an interactive poll on its website, asking viewers whether the station should carry CBS’s hour-long tribute to Rather (scheduled for 8:00 PM Wednesday) or run other programming instead. By Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,000 people had voted, with 63 percent preferring that the Rather broadcast be pre-empted, according to a WWTV spokeswoman quoted in an Associated Press story reprinted by the Traverse City Record Eagle and other local papers.

But at the same time, the station was being flooded by viewer calls and e-mails expressing outrage over the very idea of the poll. Many saw the move as an attack on Rather, or even a form of censorship. “The thinking must have been to take an opportunity to pander to the Republican right–the majority of voters in this area–at Rather’s expense,” one area citizen told Technology Review. (Well, okay, she was my mom.) “The idea that my neighbors could decide whether I could watch it or not is censorship and dangerous.”

The reaction was apparently a surprise to the station, which discontinued the poll on Wednesday and aired the Rather tribute as scheduled. “Unfortunately, this simple act of broadcasting localism has been grossly misinterpreted,” Kring said in a statement read on the air and published on the station’s website. “We were simply trying to maintain the great tradition of local viewer input that is the foundation of our modern day broadcasting system. It was never our intent to embarrass Mr. Rather or the CBS Network.”

As political skirmishes go these days, this one will pass quickly. Personally, I think the Rather poll was a stupid idea, but I also feel some sympathy for Kring. There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with the idea of giving TV viewers more choice in what their local stations broadcast, and the Web is a perfect tool for this kind of “instant democracy.” But the station was probably wrong to offer to pre-empt a broadcast so inherently polarizing, and so symbolic of a nation at war with itself. Next time, how about letting viewers decide whether they really want to watch the umpteenth season of Survivor?

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