Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Peter Jennings and the Last Anchorman

It's no surprise that people have rushed to declare the "end of an era" in the wake of Peter Jennings's passing, but in at least one important way, it's true: We have reached the end of the era of the network anchorman.

For two generations Americans have grown accustomed to having their network news anchors act in loco deus--they may have just been newsreaders, but they functioned as the Voice of God: solid, grave, assuring, authoritative.

People who've never been on television have a tendency to dismiss the talents required to be a news anchor. On the one hand, yes, anchors are talking heads. They do not, as a rule, possess much reportorial skill. They are, if you can imagine, more pompous than they appear to the naked eye.

But they are not just heads. Reading the evening news on a day-to-day basis may not take much, but anchoring an event--like a presidential election night, or the crashing of a space shuttle, or even a State of the Union night--requires an enormous reserve of charm, stamina, quick-thinking, and above all, gravitas.

Whatever else there is to be said about the recently departed generation of anchors--Brokaw, Rather, and Jennings--they were archetypes of the network anchor.

And they may have been the last of their breed. The same syndrome that David Ansen noticed in our current crop of leading men is true for our news anchors:
There's a fundamental difference between the big American male stars of Gen X and their predecessors. The icons of the past were men. Paul Newman, Robert Red-ford and Warren Beatty were young and beautiful at the start of their careers, but they were never "boys." Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Will Smith and Cruise, not to mention Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, are defined by their boyishness. They began their careers as kids and, even as they move into their 30s and 40s, have never fully lost their dew.

Think, then, about the next generation of anchormen: Matt Lauer, Bill Hemmer, Shep Smith, Brian Williams, John Roberts. Without passing any judgment on their skills as journalists, as anchors they're of a completely different species--pretty, fluffy, pleasant, boyish. They might do fine reading the news Monday to Friday, but if I were a network executive, I wouldn't have wanted any of them in the chair on September 11.

As it happens, there are only two thoroughbred anchormen working today--Aaron Brown and Brit Hume. They each evoke, in their own way, the solidity, the seriousness, the manliness that we came to expect from the succession of Cronkite, Brinkley, Rather, Jennings, and the other anchors who made the nightly national news broadcast part of American life. But both of them are confined to cable, where they ply their trade away from the eyes of the diminished, but still significant, crowds who make up the audience for the evening news.

This is neither good nor bad and the change probably carries no larger meaning for the culture. But it is change, nonetheless. And for that reason alone, it's fitting that we pause for a moment to note what really is the passing of an era.


Anonymous said...

Aaron Brown? Huh? That whiny, Ichabod Crane-looking dude that reads the newspapers at the end of his show? He evokes manliness, does he?

What ever happened to that one chick on MSNBC? The one with the horn-rimmed glasses? She was a hit for a while and then just seemed to fall off the earth.

She evoked more manliness than Aaron Brown.

Anonymous said...

News of the death of the alpha-male network anchor shall be premature until the passing of Katie Couric.

arrScott said...

Actually, Brokaw was a fine reporter, and Rather was easily one of the five or ten greatest broadcast journalists of all time. Rather's work in the 1960s and '70s is arguably the finest body of broadcast reporting since Murrow. The previous two generations of anchors had in loco deus authority because of their credibility as reporters, at least initially, before they stuck around so long that their reportorial excellence had passed from living memory.

Very few young local anchors have that kind of fundamental journalistic credibility, and as a consequence the ranks of rising network-eligible anchors suffers from a dearth of reporting experience. That, not their boyishness, is the problem.

Anonymous said...

What about Charles Gibson?

Anonymous said...

Yes, where is Ron Burgundy when we need him?

Sarah said...

Great Odin's Raven!

Anonymous said...

I have nothing against Jennings -- who's death was obviously a terrible loss for his family, friends and colleagues -- but come on, isn't the passing of the "anchorman era" a good thing?

Do really need our news to be spoon-fed to us by a guy sitting in front of a camera, just because he somehow evokes "manliness"?

Are we really better off when the news and the context it's placed in are exactly what the anchorman tells us it is?

Or are we better off now that the monopoly has been broken and most viewers have a chance to make up their own minds?

Paul M Lim said...

I'd have to put in a second vote for Charles Gibson. During "Good Morning America" time he's definitely got laidback wit, but when he goes from "Charlie" to "Charles", it's a whole new anchorman!

The other ABC man looked at for the Jennings chair is Bob Woodruff, one of those "boyish" anchors.

Cal Lanier said...

Yes, Gibson was my first thought as well. He did an outstanding job in the debates, I thought.

But that was before I thought of PBS. All the Lehrer Newshour anchors are grownups.

Anonymous said...

I watched the 2 hour special on Peter Jennings on ABC last week with my in-laws. They are liberal-leaning and I am conservative. I feel for Jennings' family and loved ones; however, the special was unbelievable. It essentially stated that Peter Jennings singlehandedly brought an end to the Bosnia conflict, he made the U.S. supposedly stop sending arms to the Khemer Rouge and helped expose the evils of tobbbacco. I was waiting for someone to say his healing touch cured them of planter's warts.

For heaven's sake, although he was a talented anchor, he was just a television star. Needless to say, it was a bit over the top.