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Anchor Roulette

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The 800-pound gorilla: Diane Sawyer.  

Cronkite always says what he thinks; that has always been a part of his charm, of which he has plenty. (The recently widowed Cronkite is currently dating Carly Simon’s sister Joanna, who’s about twenty years his junior.) But at an October 20 Freedom Broadcasting Foundation event at the Museum of Television & Radio, his 21st-century audience, which included several students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, winced when he answered one of the students’ questions: Could a woman now anchor a nightly network newscast?

“I wish they could take a listen to hear how they sound,” Cronkite said of women television news personalities, according to a student taking notes at the session. Several students recalled Cronkite saying that women newscasters talk in “too high a register” for television, though he added that they could learn to lower their voices.

The last A-list stars to emerge from the CBS News stable were Diane Sawyer and Meredith Vieira, both now at ABC.

Cronkite has reason to be cranky. He is one of a “greatest generation” of former anchors who still wander the hallways of our news divisions like escapees from Jurassic Park. Cronkite was long ago exiled to a suite of offices on the nineteenth floor of Black Rock, CBS’s corporate headquarters on West 52nd Street, just a few doors down from Moonves; he got sent there after Dan Rather, his 1981 replacement, took over the CBS Evening News.

Now a similar punishment has been meted on Rather himself. With a year left on his contract with the network, Rather still has an office and producers at 60 Minutes, but no one’s taking bets on his renewal. It took until November 13 for Rather to get on 60 Minutes this fall, with a standard-issue interview of TV personality and New York Magazine columnist James J. Cramer; finished segments on Lebanon and North Korea still haven’t aired. Lara Logan beat Rather onto 60 Minutes this season with a story that aired in a prestigious slot at the start of the November sweeps.

But Rather still goes to work with the determination to make his mark he had as a young reporter in the sixties; so do many of the legends of CBS News, who remain vibrant if not valuable. And so does the spirit of Edward R. Murrow, whose pioneering work as a network news personality in the fifties created the prototype for the modern-day news anchor. But what the recent George Clooney movie Good Night, and Good Luck reminded us about Murrow was that he threw his beliefs into his work in a way that so few do in television anymore. He supported the network business plan (which required him to regularly interview celebrities) because it gave him the freedom to embrace risky causes and difficult stories. It’s hard to imagine another Murrow emerging from these latest skirmishes in the Anchor Wars—another personality as partisan and passionate.

But then, maybe viewers aren’t looking for one.

Even amid seismic shifts in the anchor population, network news ratings have remained relatively stable. The reasons are varied and speculative; some think viewers once alienated by the strong, distinctive personalities of men like Jennings and Rather have returned to ABC and CBS to check out the new, milder-mannered newscasts. Ironically, both networks have reported modest ratings gains since their top anchor jobs opened up. And despite a slight post-Brokaw slip, NBC’s continued domination gets attributed to both advance planning and perfect casting: Brian Williams looks as though he’s been anchoring newscasts since he was a 9-year-old in front of the bathroom mirror.

In the end, everyone agrees the future depends not so much on the face of the anchor as the shape of the broadcast. “We can always make great candles,” says Paul Slavin of ABC, “but it’s the lightbulb that makes the difference.”

A brief cease-fire in the Anchor Wars was called on the morning of September 20, as the combatants filed into Carnegie Hall to mourn the death of the man many thought was the greatest television news anchor of the twentieth century. Although Brokaw’s books may have sold more and Cronkite may have been more trusted, no one knew better how to talk extemporaneously into the camera—and with uncommon ease and intelligence—than Peter Jennings. There they were: Rather, Brokaw, Walters, Koppel, Sawyer, Couric, Lauer, Gibson, Moonves, Heyward, Woodruff, and Vargas among the thousands who jammed the concert hall for more than two hours, listening intently to the testimonials from friends, the touching slide-show tribute, the Scottish bagpipes, and the Yo-Yo Ma cello performance. It was a deeply moving event that left most in tears.

But other, more complex emotions were at work in the cavernous concert hall that morning—questions and doubts that played in the minds of the celebrities who sat quietly and in awe of the tribute’s majestic sweep. From the perspective of one network executive who has observed these news stars from across a desk, it was more than a memorial service: It was also a day of reckoning for the news business, a turning point for TV personalities who wanted their lives to stand for something more than just ratings points or multi-million-dollar salaries or magazine covers.


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