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Dudes You Can Lose

A charismatic anchor does not a newscast make 4/17/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Pomp, tears, tingles and high drama. Something historic is in the air as the planet waits breathlessly for a seminal announcement from a conclave of elders pondering in private. Already, there is speculation about a successor, and many names have been suggested. Yet transferring leadership carries risks for a storied institution making its way tenuously in this infant millennium. History must be honored and traditions of long-standing upheld in a process shrouded in secrecy.

As a final step, the chosen one—whom millions will be urged to follow and adore—must embrace the vestments of this golden office and utter the word accepto.

Next comes a puff of white smoke.

And only then, after all these days of nervous waiting, will the anxious multitudes learn who has been selected to be permanent anchor of CBS Evening News.

Oh, brother! Talk about misplaced emphasis. There is far too much hand-wringing over anchors, with the hood ornaments of news again getting more attention than the chassis.

Shouldering the CBS mantle now, following the symbolic burial of Dan Rather, is interim anchor Bob Schieffer, a popgun replacing a loose cannon. Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS and co-president of its parent Viacom, has said publicly he wants Rather's successor to avoid the “voice of God.” In Schieffer, he has the voice of Gosh.

It remains to be seen how long this amiable soldier endears himself to Black Rock sages impatient to erase the ratings gap separating Evening News from its more popular counterparts on NBC, where Brian Williams has succeeded Tom Brokaw, and ABC, now scrambling to cover for cancer-sidelined Peter Jennings.

Regardless, today's shifting sands of network anchordom affirm the unhealthy celebration of personality in TV news, where charisma remains a passport to longevity and where viewers always lose when the messengers eclipse the messages.

I'm against suiting up Quasimodo to read a teleprompter. Yet enough of this anchor worship and larger-than-lifeness. A better model is The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on PBS, in which low-key Lehrer opens with a news summary before throwing it to field reports and TV's best interviewers for meaningful talk with guests. The program has relatively meager resources and even tinier ratings and, on occasion, puts the viewer into a vegetative state. Still, this is TV's smartest newscast, one in which Lehrer's nights off are barely noticed because, even when he's there, he often gets less face time than others.

Actually, news anchors are less papal than presidential. Do we not look to them for information and guidance? Do we not ask them for steadiness and team coverage during times of crisis? Do they not command the camera at will? Do they not present a public image that may conflict with who they are in private? Do they not ask us to love and respect them, to believe in their infallibility, and above all, to keep them employed for big bucks?

There is a reason why local anchors—men and women, from New York to New Mexico—are the highest paid on news staffs, and it is not necessarily because they are better journalists. Don't be shocked if the opposite is true. I know anchor dudes in my town, Los Angeles, who have a good day when they get their shoes tied. Dispatch them to the field—to cover a story not dreamed up for ratings-sweeps exposure—and they'll injure themselves.

Truth is, most newscasts are constructed solely with the bricks and mortar of focus groups and other audience research that informs bosses who will wow viewers. Anchors are the Mount Rushmores of news, their mere presence meant to rivet you to the screen.

Even iconic Walter Cronkite wasn't paid richly by CBS News because he parachuted with U.S. troops over Normandy during World War II. He became America's Uncle Walter because he was supremely avuncular and something indefinable in his face, voice and manner earned the nation's trust.

An aura of anchor omnipotence also nourished Brokaw, Rather and Jennings. One memory of that followed the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, when all three were there, to be televised scaling that notorious freedom barrier on a ladder—like Batman.

As if history would not be validated without their presence.

Whatever their relative brawn as journalists, all endured mostly because of their muscle as news personalities. In industry-speak, it was not their shows but Brokaw, Jennings and Rather who competed. This fantasia of anchor omnipotence still flowers. On CNN, for example, a slide deceptively reads “Aaron Brown reporting” during voiceovers Brown reads for stories in which he has virtually no role.

Onto this cable-news griddle now steps personality-promoting Jonathan Klein, new president of CNN/U.S., striving to overtake Fox News Channel in rating and stay ahead of MSNBC. Soon after taking over, Klein told the Los Angeles Times he wanted more “passion” from CNN anchors and field reporters, wanted viewers to see the “real them.”

Say what? “Passion” and “the real them” are what I don't want from newscasters. I get that from Oprah. “Passion” translates to opinion, already a destructive force in TV news. And instead of “the real them,” please, pretty please, give me the real story, with “them” omitted. What none of us should want from reporters or anchors are pomp, tears, tingles and high drama.

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