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.