Magazine article Insight on the News

Anchors or Actors?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Anchors or Actors?

Article excerpt

TV news anchors rose during an era when liberalism was the way to advancement, but they were trained as newsmen. Is the future news or infotainment?

Tense minutes after President Ronald Reagan had been rushed to the hospital, seriously wounded in an assassination attempt on the side-walk outside a Washington hotel, CBS newsman Dan Rather was handed a flash bulletin while on the air -- the president, it read, was dead.

Rather scanned the message, paused, then took a pass on the biggest "scoop" since Dewey beat Truman, sending the bulletin back to be double-checked. That moment's hesitation, in which Rather's experience as a journalist trumped his instinct to break the story, saved the nation unnecessary anguish and averted a blunder that likely would have done severe damage to a storied career.

It's that kind of instinct, born of long experience in the news trenches, that critics say is lacking in many of the air-brushed, blow-dried, happy talkers who read Americans the news each day. While the Ted Baxters of the news business generally have been relegated to local markets -- where a silver mane and authoritative baritone confer sufficient gravitas to hide how little they know -- observers wonder whether the explosion of so-called "infotainment" shows and the evolution of the 24-hour news cycle are paving the career paths of a more fatuous breed of talking head at the net work level, one that lacks the training, skills and nose for news of even its liberal predecessors.

The dire straits through which the news industry allegedly is drifting was the subject of recent journalistic flagellation hosted by CNN's Larry King in which leading liberal newsmen of the past bemoaned the changes wrought by competition. A typically sonorous Walter Cronkite set the tone calling the industry's drift toward infotainment both "dangerous" and "disastrous." Public Broadcasting's Robert MacNeil seconded Cronkite, adding that today's media conglomerates lack the "high earnestness" and "seriousness" with which the networks (and presumably, the publicly supported folks at PBS) once pursued the news.

CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer chimed in, decrying as "weird" and a "dreadful irony" that "the more time we get on the air, I mean we the people engaged in journalism, the lower the standard goes." And Time magazine's Hugh Sidey, the lone panelist from the print side of the business, bemoaned the advent of "binge journalism" citing the fact that World War II's pivotal Battle of the Bulge received only one cover treatment by his magazine, while Paula Corbin Jones and Monica Lewinsky -- key figures in the reports about the president's bulge battles -- have garnered a dozen covers between them.

Fondly looking back on the supposed halcyon days of electronic journalism, when such liberal giants as Edward R. Murrow roamed the earth may be fashionable, but it's just runaway sentimentality according to one man who remembers them well. "We often look back through colored glasses, but I worked in television in the golden days and, let me tell you, they weren't that golden," says Chet Collier who, as vice president for programming at the Fox News Channel, helped its chairman, conservative Roger Ailes, staff the upstart news network. It is a process Collier likens to building a National Football League team from scratch, conducting countless tryouts with aggressive young talent hoping to become starters.

"We can look back and talk about the great news and newsmen, but I'm sorry," Collier tells Insight, "there is no shortage of talent today." News people who may now strike viewers as unseasoned rookies "will be the Murrows and Cronkites of the future" he says.

Anchoring Fox's expansion team are two relative veterans, Brit Hume and Tony Snow. Former ABC White House correspondent Hume began his career with syndicated columnist and muckraker Jack Anderson; Snow, who wrote editorials at the Washington Times and speeches at the White House for President Bush, turns out a longstanding column for the Detroit News. …

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