It’s worth noting that the network-news world was in the midst of celebrating its newly minted anchors when news broke that CBS cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan had been killed by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq. The attack, which also left CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier gravely injured, came only days after ABC tapped Charlie Gibson to anchor World News Tonight and just as NBC was gearing up for its lavish farewell to Katie Couric.
The bravery that those three journalists and their many peers have displayed in reporting the story of war should serve as an indelible reminder of what’s at stake.
Not that ABC needed a reminder, given that Gibson’s ascension is in part a consequence of Bob Woodruff’s serious injuries in Iraq in January. And NBC endured the loss of correspondent David Bloom in the war’s early days.
But as Gibson and Couric prepare to assume their new posts, they and their network superiors must be mindful of the sacred trust we have in news organizations to deliver the stories that matter.
Despite the temptation to wallow in the celebrity scandals and salacious murder stories their cable news cousins too often indulge in, network newscasts for the most part put their limited resources into reporting serious stories.
By leaving their happy, sappy morning chatfests for the more sober confines of the evening news, Gibson and Couric have sent a loud, clear signal that their true passion is hard news.
They have an opportunity in their new roles to remind the country, as well, how much a news anchor can shape the way Americans perceive the world in which they live. Each has the power to shine a spotlight not only on Iraq but on hot spots across the globe, from Colombia to Sudan.
And important domestic stories are out there for them to own, too, as Brian Williams has demonstrated with his admirable post-Katrina coverage for the NBC Nightly News.
Millions will be spent to promote all three flagship newscasts. Competition will no doubt reach new heights come fall, when Couric arrives at the CBS Evening News. No doubt, the temptation will arise sooner or later to turn attention away from the tough, dangerous—and expensive—stories to look for a shot of ratings Viagra in the usual slag heap of rogues and scoundrels. Contrary to all the rash predictions in the wake of the attacks, 9/11 didn’t change everything.
Pundits have long mourned the death of the network anchor who once upon a time could turn the tide of public opinion the way Walter Cronkite did with the Vietnam War.
But I’m not so sure. The nature of network news is that anchors, especially those with the stature of Couric and Gibson, become the personification of their organizations and can have a vital voice in setting the news agenda.
Here’s hoping that Couric and Gibson recognize the responsibility they have and don’t squander the opportunity that comes with it. Here’s hoping they honor Douglas and Brolan, all who have given their lives, and all who willingly risk theirs everyday to tell the story of the world.
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