NEW YORK — AFTER Dan Rather won the TV sweepstakes by interviewing Saddam Hussein, all three major television networks debated where an anchor should be in a crisis. In the thick of the action or in the studio? The debate ended when it came to the Helsinki summit last weekend. CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN sent their anchors there to cover the Gorbachev-Bush summit meeting while keeping an eye on the latest developments in the desert-hot Middle East crisis.
Rather was the focus of controversy when he flew from his vacation hideaway in Annecy, France, to the Middle East as the Kuwait-Iraqi crisis started breaking.
He and his CBS News superiors disregarded the disdain of many competing news executives who questioned the judgment of allowing an anchorman to wait out in the sand for a story which was happening worldwide.
When Rather managed to triumphantly emerge with the first television interview with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Iraq, most of the criticism stopped and news executives began reevaluating their own judgments as to the role of the anchor.
Should the anchor of the evening news be at network headquarters organizing coverage? Or should he be out where the action is, tracking the top stories and broadcasting from the field?
I posed the question to the three network anchors and to the executive vice president of newsgathering for CNN. (CNN anchor Bernard Shaw was enroute to Helsinki.)
From Saudi Arabia, by telephone, Dan Rather was indignant about the internecine warfare being waged against him through often unattributed reactions from executives at the other networks. ``It was vicious,'' Rather said. ``The report was that I was just hanging around hotel rooms waiting for room service.'' He said he felt the Saddam Hussein interview was clear vindication for the time spent (almost six weeks) in the Persian Gulf area.
``I don't think the role of anchor and correspondent can be separated,'' he told the Monitor. ``A good anchor must also be a good correspondent when called upon to be so. With all the new technology, we can anchor from anyplace in the planet just as easily as from New York. What makes the difference are computers, satellites, cellular phones. The idea that you can only anchor from some windowless room in Manhattan is patently ridiculous.''
WILL Rather's broadcasts from Tiananmen Square in China and Baghdad cause a permanent change in the perceived role of the anchor? ``I'm not sure - those were unique situations and probably nobody will get many stories like that in one lifetime. But it is clear that the advantages of being on the spot far outweigh the potential disadvantages of not being at headquarters. My own working rule is to go where my instincts tell me to go.
``I go when I think there is a reasonable chance that I can add something for the viewer. All of us newsmen are at our worst when we pick up and go for reasons having to do with promotion just to stand in front of some location and say `Gee whiz, I'm here!' We are at our best when we hook into a good strong running story which might not have been on the air otherwise. I think I accomplished that here.''
According to Rather, CBS News has established a strong activist image. ``I hear people say there's no real difference between the three news broadcasts. But I believe that after Tiananmen Square and now Baghdad, any reasonable person who looks at the broadcasts cannot say that ours is like the other two. It's not. It's different.''
Meantime, while all network news has shown a 15 percent increase in viewers since the start of the Gulf crisis. CBS has taken a firmer hold on second place after ABC's ``World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.'' Jennings remained in New York during Rather's adventures in the Middle East. However, he, too, decided to make the journey to Helsinki.
Jennings told the Monitor: ``It looks over at CBS that the role of the anchor is changing because Dan has spent so much time in the Middle East, but in many respects he hasn't been the anchor during this time. Dan has functioned as the sub-anchor, with Bob Schieffer anchoring from New York.''
He is a bit defensive about the fact that he is not in the Gulf area. ``The situation in the Gulf is something of an aberration. You know my desperate urge not to get stuck behind a desk. I spent most of my career on the road. But in this particular crisis, quite unlike CBS, I found it just impossible to decide I could go anywhere else and still be at the center of things. It's very important for the anchor to be at the center of things because the anchor is a guide to what is going on in a variety of locations. In this case, the story was unraveling in Kennebunkport, Washington, the United Nations, Amman, Kuwait City, Baghdad, Cairo, and we didn't have access in Baghdad. So, I felt this was the only place to broadcast from ....''
Jennings feels that ``too many people have a banal way of looking at TV news - there's too much emphasis on where the anchor is today rather than the content.''
TOM BROKAW (NBC) told the Monitor that he thinks ``there is a change in the role of the anchor, but to a lesser degree than some people may realize. If you reflect back a bit, Cronkite and Chancellor and Barbara Walters were all going off to talk to people like Sadat and Shamir. The difference now is that we pop up in more places because satellite technology makes it easier to do.
``But there are many more players in the television spectrum. By the time people get to the evening news they have a pretty good fix on what is happening that day and we have to bring them something unique, analytical, one-on-one interviews.
``And don't forget that this generation of anchors - Peter, Dan, and myself - all are essentially reporters first and we follow our instincts as reporters. Although my personal instinct is to go where the story is, at the same time I do recognize that the role of the anchor is just that - to anchor all of the coverage. It certainly has worked out from time to time for CBS to have Dan in the Middle East. But, on some occasions, we think it has worked to NBC's advantage because a big piece of the story has been in this country with President Bush, the mobilization, the reaction of the Arab-American community, etc. And I was able to serve as anchor and managing editor more comfortably here on several nights. However, I did go to Saudi Arabia for five days.''
Can a news program be anchored well from the field? ``You don't have access to the breadth of the story. You are confined to what is going on by and large around you and to expand from that base is pretty difficult because of communications. You really have to rely on the people in New York to give you a fill.''
Brokaw, however, concedes that he's traveling more. ``In the last year and a half, we have been living in very tumultuous times. Historians will regard this as one of the most pivotal eras in our lifetime.
``I grew up in the generation of Huntley-Brinkley and Cronkite, when they were much more icons. They were great journalists, but also more icons than we are now. I think we are more at the working journalist's level. That means we travel more. I like that. But sometimes I long for the leisure of the old days.''