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The Error of Aaron

An anchorman is a symbol, and CNN should know it 2/09/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

There's an old sick joke about a man applying for a job at the railroad, who's asked by the boss what he'd do if he saw two trains heading for each other. "I'd throw the switchtrack," he replied. And, the boss said, what if that lever didn't work? The applicant replies, "I'd try to flag them down." And what if that doesn't work, the boss asks. What do you do then?

The applicant responds, "I'd call my aunt. She loves train wrecks."

Aaron Brown, CNN's missing anchorman, and CNN itself seemingly made a bunch of bad decisions on Feb. 1, when Brown was playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Palm Springs while the Columbia Space Shuttle was falling apart. While the broadcast-network anchors all sped to their newsrooms to lead the coverage, Brown seemingly didn't try too hard to get involved at all and even said later that he hadn't heard about the tragedy until 10 a.m. PST, about three hours after it had occurred.

There are a lot of strange bits about this incident, but the one that hardly gets mentioned is this: CNN's space correspondent Miles O'Brien happened to be on duty on that Saturday morning and did a remarkable job, explaining clearly what was known and theorized, and thankfully, doing his job with a minimum of maudlin talk. Brown really wasn't needed.

But that is very different from saying he didn't have to be there. However it has happened, the television tradition is get the top anchorman on the air at a time of national emergencies or tragedies, as if somehow the gravity of the situation will be lost without Dan or Peter or Tom to tell us.

CBS, you'll recall, in 1997 was woefully late getting on the air to report that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash, apparently because, on a Labor Day weekend, the people running the newsroom couldn't reach the higher-ups who would have put the network on the air with the news sooner. In a lot of ways, that was a bigger gaffe because it involved errors in judgment and a breakdown in communication by so many people. Affiliates and the press crucified the news division, which had no option but to plead guilty to news stupidity.

CNN's mistake was more cosmetic, and beating it up over Brown's absence, on the face of it, doesn't make that much sense. But big news without the big anchorman is like an important front-page story without an unusually big headline. The anchorman is, essentially, a graphic device, a symbol. (Don Hewitt, who was on the track team in high school, supposedly gave anchorman its new meaning while he was the executive producer of CBS's first nightly newscast. In track, the anchorman is the last and most reliable member of a relay team. He's the go-to guy.)

CNN executives claim they're just fine with the fact that Brown didn't get on the air until Sunday, because, they say, the all-news network was fully covered by O'Brien and the stations affiliated with CNN Newsource, which provided great (and sad) footage of the Columbia crumbling.

After all, an all-news channel has only one purpose, unlike the broadcast networks. So in theory, any of the anchors at CNN should be able to hold their own, as the day's events unfold. But in reality, there's a star system, and Brown is the star. He provides the tone, the public face of the place. Indeed, one of Brown's attributes, I think (or used to) is that he has a knack for understating the events of the day, the way David Brinkley did in his prime. (By contrast, on Fox, the overheated rhetoric often makes me doubt I'll make it through the day without being felled by a nuclear device, or just some foreigner.)

Day to day, Brown has staying power. But who knew he didn't have getting-there power? Had Brown shown up late but filled with credible tales of being caught out of position, all would have been forgiven. That he was quoted with excuses like he didn't have a proper suit and that the disaster ruined his day on the golf course is so lame you'd have to believe it deflated staffers at CNN, where turmoil has been the rule rather than the exception.

Woody Allen once observed that "70% of success in life is showing up," a quote I rediscovered on a Web site in which a law student attributed much of his success in law school to the plain fact that, though in the back row, he was always at class. I suspect Aaron Brown must have learned that lesson on Feb. 1. But it must be hard for him right now to look straight into the camera without feeling a little bit like a slouch. For an anchorman, that's a really awkward way to come to work.

Bednarski may be reached at pbednarski@reedbusiness.com

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