Last week, even as the nation mourned the death of ABC's Peter Jennings, stories predicted that his passing marked the end of the powerful anchor as an American institution.
This is a conclusion long in the making. Last January, CBS Chairman Les Moonves imagined a post-Dan Rather world in which, he told reporters, “it might not be the 'Voice of God' single anchor” delivering the news on CBS in the immediate future.
Moonves' comment was widely repeated last week because Rather's departure, Tom Brokaw's retirement and now Jennings' death have rendered change at 6:30 inevitable, as has the continuing decline in ratings for those evening newscasts.
But even with a shrinking audience, the three broadcast networks' newscasts still attract 29 million viewers nightly, far more than cable news networks. So fixing network news needn't require radical surgery. (The best remedy—moving the newscast to a later hour when more of America might be home to see it—probably would be impossible.)
This page has great respect for broadcast journalism. But if the newscast of the future is what we fear it might become, then the replacement for God, the Anchor, very well may be God, the Research Department. This new god will decide the news based on focus groups, Q scores and who is on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
Jennings was not shy about putting his stamp on World News Tonight. Brokaw and Rather also brought incisive journalistic chops to the news meetings. All three could move journalistic mountains.
It's a function of the job. In 1972, when Watergate was a story only The Washington Post and The New York Times were aggressively covering, Walter Cronkite, just a couple of weeks before the election, had the power to persuade CBS to spend 14 minutes of one newscast—an eternity in TV news—to probe the scandal. CBS then followed a few days later with a seven-minute report.
The White House was fuming, former CBS News executive Sandy Socolow recalled for us last week. Nixon aide Charles Colson called CBS patriarch William Paley and suggested Cronkite had been deliberately unfair. Paley told Colson that wasn't the Cronkite he knew. (In his memoir, Paley wrote that he also disliked the reports but did nothing to stop them.)
“Cronkite helped make Watergate a national story,” Socolow said. “He just thought that it was too hard to follow it in the bits and pieces that were coming out. And he got to do it. So, you know, there is really a lot that's good to be said about being the 'Voice of God.'”
There need to be gatekeepers—we call them editors hereabouts—who, as unfashionable as it may sound, are still strong enough in their convictions to decide what news viewers need to know about.
The anchors, because of their prestige in the newsroom and their popularity with viewers, had a unique ability to exert that influence. As we mourn Jennings, we also mourn a world in which news stories weren't chosen for their demographics or over/underplayed in deference to a “key demo.”
ABC's slogan, “Trust Is Earned,” spoke directly to the years of experience that Jennings brought to the anchor desk. And those three words are why many millions of Americans turned faithfully to Brokaw, Rather and Jennings. We would still like to believe that not all the gods have left us.