What will media historians recall of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw, honored by the National Association of Broadcasters this week, 50 years from now?
While it's hard for anyone who has been in broadcasting for the past 50 years—or even the past five—to speak of these three in the past tense, indeed, we must. Jennings died last August, his illness derailing a plan that would have kept him anchoring World News Tonight for at least next year. For Rather, the so-called “Memogate” flap marred a brilliant CBS career that began some 40 years earlier. Brokaw has entered the later part of his career as a globetrotting correspondent for his own prime time documentary series.
But what made these anchors world-famous officially lies in the “past,” which is a particularly hard word to swallow because these men were so resolutely and reliably part of our present for nearly a quarter of a century. They were there at every major historic event or milestone from 1981 through Sept. 11, 2001, and beyond, and they never seemed to stumble in breaking news—an illusion, perhaps, but one that the passage of time only seems to enhance. (Perhaps their professionalism was so complete that the rare screw-up only served to make them more human.)
The three made sense of that which seemed so often senseless. They even created an aura of invincibility—not just for themselves necessarily, but for the networks that employed them. They were symbols of those networks, of their profession, and of their era in history. They were conjoined, and even now (especially now), it's impossible to separate one from the other. Memories are funny that way.
It's even difficult to discuss each man in isolation from the other; it's never just “Peter” or “Dan” or “Tom,” but “Peter, Dan, and Tom”—or “PeterDanTom,” if you're in a hurry. That's just the way it is, and perhaps the way it will always be. Sorry, guys.
Walter Cronkite's legacy seems secure as the most dominant anchor in TV history, but the legacy of the Big Three is less so, if only because the future of anchordom is less secure. “I don't remember a period when the stakes were so large, and the future was so uncertain,” says Brokaw. “There are so many factors we didn't have when I was coming along. We were a duopoly, us and CBS, and I kind of liked that. And then, ABC became a player, and we began to spread around the edges, so to speak. Then, with the arrival of cable and then Internet, that really did change the equation by an order of magnitude that we're still trying to figure out.”
As everyone has known since the advent of CNN, new technologies have a way of breeding new habits. Coverage of Hurricane Katrina is just the most recent example of this. Brian Williams did a masterful job for NBC, but one could say the same for CNN's Anderson Cooper and several others. This division of anchor labor, of necessity, divides—and ultimately fractures—audience loyalty. It creates something of a reverse gestalt effect, in which a nation's perception of a single event or story isn't refracted through one person, or even two or three people, but through a dozen. It's then further divided through dozens more sources (Internet news), then dozens more (thanks, bloggers).
As a result, the notion of a Dan/Peter/Tom-like hegemony of the future is unlikely. But it's also worth pointing out that this also seemed the case 10 or 15 years ago.
Figuring out the Brokaw/Rather/Jennings legacy seems to turn on two diametrically opposed arguments. The first is a glass–half-full perspective, and its acolytes usually seem to work at the networks. Williams happens to be an especially eloquent champion: “I've asked [the other anchors] how many death notices they read during their years in the chair having to with their own occupation, and I distinctly remember in the early '80s about the evening news being on its last legs then. That we are the No. 1 daily source of news in the United States, in this era is pretty amazing. That some 30 million Americans still make it appointment television says something about the other choices out there.”
Williams sees a bright future for the evening news, thanks to their hard work. “These guys had a great run, but I will not allow it to be said that they had the last great run,” he says, “because I know Tom and Dan well enough that they would surely leave enough for us who would take their places.”
But the glass–half-empty crowd has done a better job of getting their argument across—either that, or the nation's media critics have been more willing to embrace it. “The main reason [Brokaw/Jennings/Rather] will be remembered is because they were the last of the anchors who owned the franchise,” says Joe Angotti, longtime Brokaw friend and former top NBC News executive, now a visiting professor at Monmouth College in Illinois. “From this day forward, the franchise is so fragmented, and there are so many anchormen on so many outlets, that none will ever have the influence that those three guys had.”
Peter Herford, professor of Journalism, Shantou University in Shantou, China, who worked with Cronkite and Rather over a three-decade career at CBS, wonders about broadcast news' relevance to future generations. “Cultural historians will always compare the [Big Three] anchors to the defining anchor, Walter Cronkite, who had the good fortune to live in a universe unto himself,” he says. “But the average age of the Evening News audience is 60, and the number of 18- to 45-year-olds who watch is infinitesimal by network-rating standards. The young cannot remember what they have never known, and they care even less.”
Which is to say, cultural historians will remember the Big Three. But will anybody else?
Either way, Williams may well have the stronger argument because all he has to do is point to his predecessors as proof. Consider that the anchor-as-news-god-is-dead argument gained currency in the early '80s, but it failed to explain a bizarre anomaly: As evening-news viewership declined, and as network budget-cutters eviscerated their news divisions, Brokaw, Rather and Jennings actually grew in stature.
The reasons are now self-evident. Their networks used them as living proof that their news divisions were still vital, all-pervasive and intact even though the networks perhaps were not. Besides being first-rate journalists, Jennings, Brokaw and Rather were the standard-bearers, placeholders and even salesmen. And if they couldn't stop the audience decline, they certainly helped stanch it. In this sort of environment, the news-anchor-as-god wasn't dead but was, in fact, more alive than ever.
“I've never thought of myself as 'the voice of God,' and I doubt that Dan or Peter did, either,” says Brokaw, “especially given my origins out there in the working class of South Dakota. When I looked up at the end of almost 40 years in the business, there I was at the pinnacle of my profession, and the nice thing was—Dan, Peter and I used to say to each other in the closing years of our common career—that we made each other better because we were so competitive and because we had shared values about being a reporter.”
There is, in fact, an easy temptation to lump the three anchors together because they did seem to be so similar, in outlook and approach. But nothing could be further from the truth. Brokaw may have been a natural-born anchor, but he wasn't necessarily born to be one. He was, in some key respects, deeply influenced by his father, Anthony “Red” Brokaw, who was the crew foreman on the construction of the Fort Randall and Gavins Point dams in South Dakota.
Hod Nielsen, an old friend of the Brokaw family, once said that “Red was a good, hardworking, tough guy. He was a nice guy, but he ran those roughnecks and didn't have any trouble doing it.” The lesson—and value—of hard work never strayed far from the son, either.
Brokaw always seemed more multifaceted than his counterparts: He loved (and still loves) the outdoors. He was (and still is) a naturalist. He was (and still is) a gifted writer, with three bestsellers to his name. When it came time to walk away from a job that had made him world-famous, he spent a couple of years grooming his successor.
Rather may be the perfect example of Be Careful What You Wish For (You May Just Get It). As a child in Wharton, Texas, he was stricken with rheumatic fever; bedridden for months, he would listen to Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts from Europe and dream of the day he, too, would be a great newsman. Rather would achieve stardom as both anchor and reporter, although he was more suited by temperament and talent for the latter.
Further burdened by the fact that his predecessor Cronkite was a broadcasting legend, Rather would spend 24 years trying to find a comfort zone as anchor. The struggle was occasionally a public spectacle, which in turn made him fodder for the tabloids. The on- and off-screen incidents are stuff of TV lore—his sign-off “Courage,” walking off the set in Miami, the shouting match with Bush Sr., and the “What's the Frequency?” incident.
But those tabloid-fodder events were inconsequential measured against the full scope of his journalistic accomplishments.
“Dan was one of the great reporters of the 20th century, and he covered most of the major events of the last 30 years both overseas and domestically,” says his temporary successor, Bob Schieffer. “Dan never liked to be in the studio; he always liked to be out covering the news. I think Dan was never comfortable to be behind the anchor desk. He always wanted to be where the story was, and that was both his strength and his weakness.”
Rather declined an interview request; his immediate future is uncertain. His contract ends this fall, and some speculate that he won't be at CBS by this time next year. There is poignancy to this story; he is the lion in winter whose legacy could cruelly be shaped by one word: Memogate.
Jennings was the boy anchor of the early '60s, the kid who looked like Bobby Darin doing the news each night. ABC was the “young” network, but Jennings had enough sense to know that his role was doomed, and he left for an overseas assignment, where he became one of TV's finest reporters while working from the Middle East.
He later became part of a three-anchor team because the news division's president, Roone Arledge, assumed none of the three was strong enough to go it alone against the titans at NBC or CBS. How wrong he was: Jennings went solo 23 years ago and, by the late '80s, became America's most popular anchor (each of the Big Three was at the top at one time or another). As much as Cronkite, he was a natural—perhaps the natural among the three—and his vision is missed.
“I don't think there's a day that goes by without me thinking about him,” says Jon Banner, executive producer of World News Tonight. “His influence and editorial standards impact all of us at the broadcast every day, and we're constantly trying to live up to what he always pushed us to live up to. Peter was one of a kind.”
So what will we remember of them? What should we? “Peter, Dan and Tom,” says Williams, “presided over an industry that got smaller and lighter and more compact, and they told us you can go out and get to a breaking story and bring it back live. These guys shrank the world before our eyes.”
Says Banner, “To borrow a line from Tom, you could easily refer to them as the greatest generation of broadcast journalists. They set a standard that others will try to live up to for a long, long time. When people ask what anchors should be and what should be expected of the people who bring them the evening news night after night, they'll look to these three people.”
Jeff Gralnick, a former executive producer of both World News Tonight and Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and now a new-media consultant for NBC News, puts it this way: “In a small period of time, three excellent broadcasters have left the scene, but the world will not end in terms of evening-news journalism. The legacy of the Big Three who are off the stage is the solid footing on which American television [journalism] is today.”
A remarkable legacy, and a hard—if not impossible—one to forget.