What does America want from its TV journalists?
Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like the annual ritual of anchor shake-ups in the TV news industry. Last year at this time, Tucker Carlson was moving from CNN to MSNBC after the "stop hurting America" episode on Crossfire; Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley were about to launch Connected: Coast to Coast, a twice-a-day blog-centric hour of news chat on MSNBC; and CBS was making noise about luring Katie Couric to replace Dan Rather on the evening news.
Now, a year later, Ron and Monica have quietly said their on-air goodbyes as CC2C left the airwaves earlier this month; Tucker is tucked safely away in the little-watched 11 p.m. time slot (up against, of all people, his Crossfire nemesis Jon Stewart); and Katie is still being courted by CBS (albeit now as Bob Schieffer's replacement, not Dan Rather's.)
When you manage to tune out the faux urgency of the headlines about who's defecting to where and why, there's a lulling, cyclical quality to these seasonal shifts. (The title of one recent post on the media blog TVNewser was unusually blunt in its acknowledgement of this fact: "Couric Watch: Is Getting Old"). The moment an anchor slot opens up, the media is ablaze with speculation about who will fill it, but once that new talking head takes over, no one watches anyway. No one! The decline of evening news on the broadcast networks is well-known, but even cable stars like Anderson Cooper (who was recently given Aaron Brown's slot on CNN, to the disgruntlement of many viewers and the delectation of others) have been netting disappointing ratings once they settle into their much-discussed new jobs. Why do we care so much who's reading the teleprompter copy on shows that none of us actually watch?
Part of it, of course, is simple bloodlust, the hunger for drama and novelty inherent in watching any high-stakes power struggle. But there must be something more, something inchoate and primal that we want, nay, need from our anchorpeople, whether we faithfully tune in to their newscasts or not. Most obviously, of course, anchors are the ones we turn to in a crisis. Sizing up a potential news anchor, we immediately conjure images of disaster (the next 9/11, the spread of a deadly disease) then slap that person's face up over an image of that as-yet-unforeseeable event: Are Katie Couric's pert features up to relaying the apocalypse? Not according to Jon Friedman, the media editor for MarketWatch.com, who recently published an open letter to Les Moonves in which he discouraged the CBS head from hiring Couric: "I'd have a hard time imagining her as a network's point person in the aftermath of a major tragedy."
The eulogies for Peter Jennings (who will reappear tonight, eerily, in a broadcast of his last piece of news reporting for ABC, a one-hour special on the health insurance crisis in America), as well as the farewells to Ted Koppel, have tended to adopt a similar tone: Where is the gravitas of yesteryear? But it's not clear that the anchorless present in which we find ourselves stems from a simple lack of serious candidates for the job. Rather, viewers themselves seem unclear what they want from a television journalist in the post-Internet age. Good looks? Reporting chops? Political views custom-tailored to suit our own? Can any or all of these co-exist with the old model of the objective, avuncular dispenser of neutral information, the so-called "voice of God"?
Last Sunday, in an op-ed column titled "Can Mommy Know Best?", Maureen Dowd, discussing the new man/woman team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas on World News Tonight, wondered if the paternal ideal of the nightly news anchor could ever be replaced by a maternal one. But a larger question might be: Hasn't the parental model of Cronkite-ian gravitas been displaced entirely by a different kind of desire? The hottest new anchors seem to be, well, hotties on the model of the sultry Vargas or the suave, sexually ambiguous Cooper. Somehow, through a process I'd rather not psychoanalyze too closely, we've gone from wanting to be cared for by our anchorpeople to wanting to f**k them. Mickey Kaus has gotten in trouble for arguing in Slate this week that viewers choose movies primarily because we're sexually attracted to one or both of the leads. As the news business comes increasingly to resemble show business, why shouldn't the same be true for newscasters?
A third function fulfilled by the modern anchor, at least post-Geraldo, is one that might be thought of as sleaze-by-proxy: Television anchors can serve as our own worst selves, wallowing in gossip and speculation and daring to go places and ask questions we'd never venture on our own, not from lack of courage or access, but out of a simple sense of shame. This was recently illustrated in a particularly grisly way by Rita Cosby's utterly pointless presence in the witness chamber during Stanley "Tookie" Williams' execution. But Elizabeth Vargas has been known to play sleaze-by-proxy as well. I still haven't forgiven her for that 20/20 special on Matthew Shepard, in which the "new details" that had supposedly emerged in the case turned out to be nothing more than the two killers denying from prison that they'd committed a hate crime: They loved gay people! They only beat him and strung him on a fence to die for his money and his drugs!
I would submit that America will never get the anchorperson it needs (only the anchorpeople it deserves) until we figure out what it is we really want from the men and women behind the news desk. Guidance? Gossip? Or just a little sweet, sweet eye candy?