The Anchor Wars
Their best anchors gone, now, their viewership bailing for Internet sources, US network news programs find themselves drifting.
On September 11, 2001, the world was glued to television screens, watching the tragic aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the US. American television anchors, led by Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather, provided some stability, offering insightful accounts of the horror that ensued. The US changed that day as it realized that it had been attacked on its own turf by hostile forces, and who better than the reliable anchors to provide round-the-clock coverage of events? Americans remained tuned to their TV sets for days, and Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather enjoyed an even greater degree of audience respect as a result. In a world seemingly gone mad, for their viewers, these news anchors were the voices of reason.
In the past year-and-a-half, however, the face of network TV news (and cable news) has changed drastically. Brokaw retired, Jennings died from lung cancer, and Rather was forced to resign after a report on President Bush's military service proved to be false. Aaron Brown of CNN, who was extremely popular with regular CNN viewers, particularly during his 9/11 coverage, was replaced by the weepy, emotional and much younger Anderson Cooper (whose emotional outbursts during the Hurricane Katrina coverage put him on the map). Ted Koppel of Nightline also stepped aside. These long-time trusted anchors, the faces most Americans associated with "news" are gone now, and networks are scrambling to find suitable replacements. But that's tricky, since viewers become used to seeing a familiar face and someone new could prove suspicious since anchors need to gain the trust of their viewers, and viewers who have been loyal to long-standing, established anchors (who have led them through such newsworthy events as far back as the Iranian Hostage Crisis and through the tsunami in Indonesia) may need time to re-establish trust with a new anchor.
The replacements thus far: Brian Williams followed in Brokaw's footsteps at NBC, Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff became co-anchors of ABC's World News Tonight, replacing Jennings, and the respected 69-year-old Bob Schieffer temporarily stepped in to fill Rather's shoes for the CBS Nightly News. New anchors in place, the war for ratings, viewers, and advertisers, has started up again. And now, just as CBS has lured away Katie Couric from NBC's highly successful Today show to become its lead anchor (and the only solo woman to hold such a position), the "network war" has gained momentum.
The question remains, though: In an era when network news audiences are dwindling and viewers are instead opting to receive their news from the Internet, is it only a matter of time before anchors are extinct? Or is it that anchors will have to follow in the footsteps of Cooper and provide a more intimate, "touchy-feely" version of the news; that is, news which is deemed more subjective, rather than objective? The networks are also facing considerable challenges from cable news (especially, the right-leaning Fox network) and the Internet. Network news gained momentum with 9/11, but since then, more and more viewers are eager to turn to cable news shows (such as Fox and MSNBC and blogs) for what appears to be personal, biased commentary (hence the popularity of the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity), and for more immediate, breaking stories which the Internet offers readily.
It has long been said that the evening news has always been about the personality of the anchor rather than about the news itself (case in point: the legendary Walter Cronkite, who was known as the "most trusted man in America"), and therefore the current lineup of anchors is merely a popularity contest. What else can possibly explain CBS' decision to hire away the bubbly, cheerful Couric who seems to be a perfect fit for the light fare of morning TV to lead its serious evening newscast? Can this be explained in any way other than the "Anderson Cooper effect"? That is; that star power is far more important than the actual content of the news itself? As Tim Goodman writes in the San Francisco Chronicle in an article titled "Sure, Cooper is cute and young, but get a grip CNN" (12 October 2005):
The Anderson Cooper cult of personality must end. That may be difficult, given that he's the Poster Boy Anchor and Future of Broadcast Journalism, so perhaps merely containing him would be a start.
In another article in TomPaine.com ("Must-Cry TV", 20 September, 2005), which explains Cooper's outburst at a local politician regarding the aftermath of Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans and other Gulf areas, Richard Bradley quotes CNN boss Jonathan Klein as saying: "I think other news executives are drooling over [Cooper.] He brings a new dimension to the job, which is a concept of an anchor as a kind of missionary. It's a new model for thinking about what the anchorperson ought to be." Bradley states: "Forgive me for not salivating, but is crying on television really what a television news anchor 'ought to be'? I don't want my newscasters to be missionaries."
Indeed, what happened to the idea of just reporting the news? Perhaps this is the 9/11 effect and a result of the war in Iraq, when many anchors and journalists seemed to throw objectivity to the wayside as they embraced a patriotic tone in their reports. The extremely conservative and popular Fox News was probably the first to picture an American flag at the bottom of its screen, but other channels soon followed suit, blatantly stating that they are not merely aloof, objective observers and reporters of the news, but that they are standing by American policy and that they too are "good Americans". [The New York Times reported that almost all of the cable news channels were showing flags on their screens soon after 9/11. (16 April, 2003)]
Fox News' decision to run the flag was perhaps an effective way of showing its pro-Bush leanings and taking a "If you're not with us, you're against us" approach -- a blatant stand against liberal media which argued the case against going to war with Iraq. (Fox also led the way for some serious French-bashing during this period as a result of France's refusal to join the Iraq war effort). During this period, less conservative networks also joined the flag-demonstration cause, running the US flag on their screens (which eventually vanished), perhaps sensing the mood of the country during wartime. Even the most worldly network of all, CNN, ran a flag on its screen for a brief period, clearly playing into the mood of the nation. The so-called mood at the time was translated as a demand for staunch patriotism. Americans, having been attacked on their own soil, were eager for payback the perpetrators had to be punished and it is during this time that the conservative Fox News and its anchors skyrocketed to the top of the ratings chart. Some argue that this is exactly what the nation wants to see: that their fellow Americans who are working in the media are Americans first, journalists second.
However, it is this sort of bias in the news that detracts from sound reporting, and tilts the news we receive to the more conservative interests. The point of a reliable media, however, is that both "sides" of the news, liberal and conservative, are represented. However, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq war, there was a clear shift in the media's sensibilities. The question remains: Was it really possible for anchors and journalists to remain unbiased as the nation was attacked and prepared itself for war? Just as anchors' emotions ran high during President Kennedy's assassination, wasn't it only natural that there would be an emotional element to reporting the events of 9/11 and the initial stages of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
In "Between the pull of patriotism and self-censorship", a report written for Reporters Without Borders shortly after September 11, Alexandre Levy and Francois Bugingo quote a number of foreign journalists working in the US who found that the tone of American TV news had clearly shifted to encompass a definitive patriotic tone. (They quote Eric Leser of Le Monde: "I think the turning point was George W. Bush's speech to Congress on 20 September 2001. Since then, the media has taken a strongly patriotic tone and news has lost out to propaganda." The Canadian correspondent Richard Hetu also remarked that "Broadcasts became all beating the drum and flags flying in the wind; it was no longer news." And another French journalist claimed that American television news had "gone to war."
Objectivity and balance have long served as the staples of American journalism, but no longer. The European press has always enjoyed an "adversarial" style of reporting, but American news institutions are now following the manner of Fox News Channel, and injecting "opinion reporting" whenever possible - and that opinion is increasingly conservative. (Even during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, anchors and journalists initially for a brief moment turned their wrath to the federal government for its lack of immediate assistance in the Gulf region. However, within a matter of days, they pointed the blame at the local Democrats in power for the chaos that ensued.)
In "Twlight of Objectivity" (31 March 06, Slate.com), Michael Kinsley writes:
"Objectivity the faith professed by American journalism and by its critics is less an ideal than a conceit. It's not that all journalists are secretly biased, or even that perfect objectivity is an admirable but achievable goal. In fact, most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close. The trouble is that objectivity is a muddled concept. Many of the world's most highly opinionated people believe with a passion that it is wrong for reporters to have any opinions at all about what they cover It can't be done. Journalists who claim to have developed no opinions about what they cover are either lying or deeply incurious and unreflective about the world around them Would it be the end of the world if American newspapers abandoned the cult of objectivity?"
Granted, journalists may well be biased as Kinsley claims, but isn't objectivity the first rule taught in journalism classes, or can we see this change down the road as more and more American journalists take their cues from Fox News? And perhaps, as Kinsley elaborates, it would not be "the end of the world" if the press "abandoned the cult of objectivity", but a trend of lack of objectivity and judgmental reporting also poses dangers. Doesn't judgmental reporting also lead to the muddling of facts? Opinion journalism also may possibly pave the way for the presentation of distorted truths. In this era of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, two journalists exposed for fabricating stories, the most important aspect of journalism should focus on presenting only the facts.
According to the British Journalism Review, a large number of Americans are now referring to British news sources, such as the Guardian or the BBC which the BJR blames on "dissatisfaction on the part of the American public with the press in the United States". ("For many, British is better" 2004) Generally, international perspective is underrepresented in US news. In these times, there should be ample room for discussions in the media as to why the US is so unpopular in the Middle East, and the historical factors that led to a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda to attack innocent Americans should be discussed openly to the public. For an anchor (or any other journalist) to merely present a one-sided "opinion" on a topic - any topic - detracts from the integrity of the news organization. This eventually will lead to following the party line, and journalists whose opinions differ from the party line will be crowded out. Hence, objectivity and non-judgmental reporting are key for any news organization wishing to maintain its integrity and a solid reputation.
As Couric takes the helm at CBS, it is likely that the station will see an upsurge in viewership, given her popularity on the Today show. However, this may only be temporary. According to a report titled "The State of the News Media 2004", network news is in serious trouble, losing more and more viewers every year: "A decade ago (November 1993), 40.7 million Americans watched the nightly newscasts. By November 2003, that number was 29.3 million, a decline of 28 percent in 10 years."
As a sole woman anchor, Couric is breaking new ground. Previously, both Barbara Walters and Connie Chung had also served as co-anchors (with Harry Reasoner and Dan Rather, respectively), but their tenure didn't last long. Now, Couric will be going it alone, and it will be telling if she can succeed and if CBS will be able to use the Couric star power to win younger viewers (CBS is currently in third place), or will network news have to devise other clever gimmicks and technological advancements (such as delivering breaking news in cell phone-sized soundbites) to improve its situation.
For the long-term, it appears that anchors are here to stay. However, network news may have to wake up and realize that in order to increase the number of viewers, networks should realize that their credibility and longevity is directly linked to providing viewers with informative, impartial, ground-breaking coverage -- as well as the personalities of their lead anchors.