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TV Anchors Away

Dan, Peter, and Tom talk about hitting the road

By Arthur UngerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor. Arthur Unger, former TV critic of the Monitor, now writes for Television Quarterly, specializing in coverage of TV news. / September 13, 1990


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.

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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.''