TV newscasts still need trusted, experienced journalists at the helm.
By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (email@example.com) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.
And then there were none. That's how it felt when ABC's Peter Jennings revealed in April that he has lung cancer. Despite his desire to keep working while undergoing treatment, Jennings' illness means that for the first time in more than 20 years he won't be a nightly fixture on the network news. His absence, following the departures of Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, suggests that we've come to the end of an era and the age of the anchor is finally over.
Don't you believe it.
As eras go, this one is still young. The term "anchor" was used for the first time in a TV sense in 1952, when CBS producers likened coverage of that year's political conventions to a relay race and dubbed the host, Walter Cronkite, their anchorman. Most Americans alive today have never known a time when network anchors were not national icons.
In a world that has changed at a dizzying pace over the last half century, these anchors have been surprisingly stable. NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were dominant for more than a decade. In the mid 1960s, Cronkite surpassed them as the audience favorite, and his tenure at the top lasted even longer, until his retirement in 1981. Along the way, he became known as the most trusted man in America, so influential that he's credited with changing the course of history with a single newscast. When he declared that the United States was stalemated in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson reportedly remarked, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
The anchors who followed in the 1980s--Jennings, Brokaw and Rather--added the role of roving reporter to their news-reading duties and traveled the world to cover the biggest stories. Sometimes they were guilty of showboating; who can forget Rather dressed as "Gunga Dan," crossing into Afghanistan? But when the anchors turned up on the scene, from Berlin when the wall came down to Beijing when the tanks rolled in, their very presence made an unmistakable point: What's happening here really matters.
In times of national tragedy, network anchors mattered even more. They knit us together, from the Kennedy assassination to the horrors of September 11. "We are looked to for information," Brokaw said after the 2001 terrorist attacks, "but also for empathy and reassurance." Even as the audience splintered and shrank, turning to cable or the Internet for daily information, the bond that millions had formed with one anchor or another pulled them back to watch network news when the world turned upside down.
The conventional wisdom is that those days are over. The "voice of God" anchor, CBS Chairman Les Moonves has said, is a relic of the past. Interim CBS anchor Bob Schieffer deliberately does not come across as omniscient, and the network is giving its reporters more airtime and face time to explain their stories.
But a funny thing has happened. The anchor has become even more important, not less. Schieffer is the one who's getting rave reviews for setting a comfortable tone and asking the kinds of questions that viewers themselves want answered. At NBC, Brian Williams slipped easily into the anchor chair after years of preparation on cable and picked up where Brokaw left off, hitting the road in his first few months on the job to cover the tsunami and the Pope's funeral. He seems relaxed and in charge, and he's been able to keep "NBC Nightly News" in first place in the ratings.
At both networks, the transition has gone more smoothly than might have been expected based on past experience. When CBS named Rather, instead of Roger Mudd, to succeed Cronkite, some critics said flash had won out over substance, and the ratings temporarily dipped. When ABC gave Jennings his first shot at the anchor chair in 1965, he seemed too young and too green; he lasted less than three years. It took him 15 years to work his way back, after earning his stripes as a foreign correspondent.
Ultimately, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw succeeded not because they were good-looking and spoke clearly--Brokaw, remember, has a slight speech defect--but because they were experienced, credible journalists who connected with the audience.
There's much more competition for that audience now, and network news desperately needs to change if it's going to endure for the long term. But reinventing the newscast doesn't have to mean throwing the anchor overboard. Even CNN, which once proclaimed "the news is the star," quickly learned that people watch people. As CNN President Jim Walton told the New York Times in 2003, "I do believe it matters who a viewer allows into their homes."
Viewers don't just need a well-coiffed TV maître d' whose only job is to introduce the specials on tonight's news menu. They need a journalist who earns their trust every night, someone like, say, a Schieffer or a Williams. Bob and Brian alone can't rescue network news. But they're just the right kind of anchors to keep it from drifting farther off course.###