The real drama of last week’s Election Night—besides, you know, determining the political direction of the country—was that viewers finally got a chance to see our three shiny new network anchors at work. Okay, it was only for an hour or so, not time enough, really, for them to do much more than hopscotch from district to district, handing out those little check marks. Katie Couric squeezed in one weird comment about Jon Tester and his missing fingers, which the next night drew a derisive head wag from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Still, it was an intriguing appetizer before the Big Three anchors—Couric, NBC’s Brian Williams, and ABC’s Charles Gibson—go back to their day jobs, piloting those 6:30 newscasts that few people watch (besides your grandparents) and no one really needs anymore. That’s the modern anchor’s dilemma: A fraction of his time is spent narrating elections, catastrophes, and the other crucial moments in our collective lives, and the rest is spent in the TV equivalent of a cryogenic storage tube. This is why I recently did something I’ve never, ever done before: watch the nightly news. All three shows, each night, for a week. I wasn’t interested in seeing how they’re doing. I just wanted to see what they’re doing.
Of the three, NBC Nightly News has the front-runner’s swagger. (It pulls in over 9 million viewers, followed closely by ABC, then not so closely by CBS.) Williams has every reason to be confident; NBC’s anchor succession was the smoothest, and the only one that didn’t have the air of a palace coup. Also, he’s surrounded by stars, trotting out Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw for Election Night analysis. But not every night can be Election Night. On one newscast, the big scoop was a sit-down with President Bush, conducted by Maria Bartiromo—in which the only notable moment was Bush’s oft-blogged-upon remark about using “the Google.” This is what drives networks crazy about blogs: that they feed parasitically on the networks’ access. And this is what drives blogs crazy about networks: When they get access, this is the best they can do with it.
As for Williams, he’s famously funny off-camera, a reliably jocular talk-show guest. As an anchor, he’s suitably somber, though he flashes an irreverent side. Teeing up a segment on attack ads, he intoned, “There are more campaign ads—if you can stand it.” His voice may be rooted in the bedrock of Chancellor-Brokaw, but he often seems dangerously close to an exasperated eye-roll.
Charles Gibson, on the other hand, is all grim purpose; I never saw him host Good Morning America, but it’s hard to imagine him as someone you’d want to wake up with. On Election Night, he tried his hand at a few dry Ratherisms, saying Hillary Clinton’s race “has all the surprise of a Doris Day movie.” But behind the anchor desk, he’s deadly straight—a stance that actually plays well amid the medicinal air of World News. ABC, for example, was the only newscast to report on Sudan all week. And while all three shows noted that ExxonMobil posted a $10.5 billion profit in the last quarter, only ABC tried to explain how oil companies justify these profits in light of continuing high gas prices. Of course, the show had about 45 seconds in which to do it, but bonus marks for making the effort.
And then there’s Katie. There’s no reason that a female anchor—and she’s! The! First!—can’t be taken seriously. But she doesn’t help her cause by starting each program with “Hi, everyone,” as though calling a parent-teacher meeting to order. And it must be said: The raccoon eye makeup is startling. (Hey, if it were a man wearing it, I’d remark on it as well. Probably more so.) Couric reads the news as proficiently as her tie-wearing colleagues, but her show’s adopted an important attitudinal shift: CBS is all about feelings. Couric furrows her brow, she grins, she giggles: It’s a Kabuki theater she honed while on Today. Lapses in airport security are “pretty unnerving,” while genetic mapping for women “is such exciting stuff.” Barack Obama, likewise, is “generating so much excitement!” She inadvertently calls to mind the motto of Stephen Colbert: He’s not going to read the news to you; he’s going to feel the news at you. Couric is feeling the news. The intended message: She’s just like you! She’s in there dirtying her hands—and her heart. Just not her clothes.
The nightly news is stuck in a classic death spiral: afraid to alienate aged viewers but not converting any new ones. The form is petrified; haunted by the ghosts of Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather and, of course, the chain-clanking Cronkite. Trouble is, a generation from now, no one’s going to be haunted by the ghosts of Gibson, Couric, and Williams.
So let’s throw out the rule book and dream a little. The networks are threatened by a tightening pincer formation, with the partisan combativeness of Fox News on the right and the irreverence of Stewart’s Daily Show on the left. Salvation is usually thought to lie in drifting one way or the other, toward belligerence or gleeful lampoon. But there’s another approach, proposed by, of all people, Jon Stewart while praising, of all things, Fox News. At the recent New Yorker Festival, Stewart admitted he admires Fox—not for its politics but for its purpose. Fox News, he said, knows why it exists.
Couric feels the news. The intended message: She’s just like you! She’s in there dirtying her hands—and her heart.
Do network newscasts know why they exist? When asked what kind of news organization he’d endorse, Stewart proposed something like Fox News but for truth. A surprisingly earnest answer, especially from someone who’s been criticized for sowing snark among the nation’s youth. But the much-cited statistic about young people getting their news from The Daily Show isn’t a condemnation of most young people (as it’s usually framed): It’s a condemnation of available news sources. Simply put, there’s a desire right now for anchors who will call bullshit when bullshit is being served. (You could argue that the American electorate did just that last week at the voting booth.) Or for reporters who, when a candidate like Kerry Healey spins an attack ad by saying, “It’s not a negative ad. It’s negative information,” won’t simply leave it unremarked. Stephen Colbert, a comedian, should not be the only person in the broadcasting universe who, when interviewing a congressman sponsoring a bill promoting the Ten Commandments, asks him if he can list the Ten Commandments. (He couldn’t.) Yet CBS’s big innovation is to showcase blowhards from all points of the compass in its “freeSpeech” segment, which is essentially an all-you-can-eat bullshit buffet.
The shift doesn’t have to be radical; Williams, in particular, seems well suited to call out a newsmaker or two. Half the time he’s already saying it with his eyes. Now he just needs to say it with his mouth. Or take this example: During an ABC story on discord between the White House and the Iraqi prime minister, the P.M. said, “No one can assign timetables,” and Donald Rumsfeld claimed that such schedules “are still in discussions.” ABC then showed earlier clips in which the U.S. ambassador said, “Iraqi leaders have agreed to a timetable,” and President Bush said the Iraqis have “agreed to a schedule.” Add a zippy joke, and this could have been The Daily Show. Add a combative reporter, pointing out the contradictions to Bush, and you’ve got an endlessly replayable YouTube clip, one with a little more bite than “the Google.” Trust me, the kids would be all over it.