Howard Kurtz Deconstructs the Last Gasp of the Network TV Anchor
One of my favorite TV reporters calls them "news actors."
You and I know them as anchors -- the folks who become the face and voice of newscasts, earning accolades, salaries and prestige far beyond most of the working stiffs who actually assemble the newscast. My friend calls them news actors, because too often they are reading lines fed to them by a producer, working hard to look the part of an intrepid reporter because they don't have the time or skill to actually do it. (click here for a 20-minute YouTube video showing CBS anchor Dan Rather trying to decide whether to wear an overcoat)
I was reminded of the term while thumbing through Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz's impressive new book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War. I'm only 80 pages in, but Kurtz offers a tremendously detailed account of the last few turbulent years in the network news anchor game -- from the ascension of Brian Williams as heir to Tom Brokaw to the rise of Katie Couric as the new face of CBS News. Read an exerpt here.
As even Kurtz admits early on, obituaries for the form are hardly in short supply. Network news fits fewer viewers' lifestyles these days, and the total number of eyeballs watching these newscasts dips every year. Still, it's the largest platform in TV news and Kurtz spent more than a year documenting the most game-changing time in the industry for many, many years.
Some have concentrated on the scoops he delivers -- my favorite is the one which opens the book, that CBS president Les Moonves met with Brian Williams in a public library to offer him Dan Rather's job before Williams eventually took over for Tom Brokaw -- but I'm mostly enjoying the way Kurtz outlines this unique job, humanizing those who do it in unusual ways.
The gig does require a bit of acting, as well as black belt-level displays of corporate politics. Kurtz documents how ABC anchor Peter Jennings, sensitive about never finishing high school, transformed himself into a legendarily suave and erudite, if self-educated, anchor. He also notes how the increasing responsibility to serve as a brand-name face of their news divisions gives modern day anchors less time to do actual reporting -- bringing up that whole news acting thing -- which may have proven Rather's fatal flaw.
Other interesting stuff: legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite blames Rather for being mostly barred from appearing on the network after his retirement in 1981, while Rather believes his predecessor is mostly miffed at leaving the news game just before anchors began earning multi-million dollar salaries.
Brokaw brought the NBC Nightly News to Number One in the ratings by relentlessly covering the O.J. Simpson trial, which Jennings resisted. Rather tried to get CBS to air his flawed story about President Bush's National Guard service by threatening to give his scoop to the New York Times. And Rather found out Bob Schieffer would be replacing him as interim anchor on the CBS Evening News by reading it in USA Today.
Kurtz also makes me feel like a slug: penning this 464-page tome -- with no book leave -- while writing regular columns for the Post and hosting his weekly CNN media talk show, Reliable Sources. But I would expect no less from a guy who reported on the Jayson Blair controversy even while on his honeymoon. (Click here for an interesting story on how the newspaper feels about his scoops landing in the book instead of his columns).
It's a complex story about complicated media figures. I wonder how much the world beyond us media geeks will care about all this, given how the status of anchors has diminished in recent years. But Kurtz has managed an amazing feat -- detailing the transition of network news anchors from gods of the information age to celebrities with slightly more cachet than Britney or Paris.
Where this leaves our world and our democracy may be the open question.