There's No Business Like News Business

BACK in the '50s, Jack Gould, the New York Times's distinguished TV columnist, wrote that the worst thing you could call a newscaster was a ``rip and read'' man. He meant someone who would tear a story off the wire machine, rush on set, and intone the words - sometimes knowing next to nothing about the copy he was reciting so impressively. There were plenty of those rip-and-read men in the 1940s and early '50s. Their news shows were 15-minutes long, full of rather boring charts, and offered interminable segments on events like Army Day parades.

But take a look at the impressively accomplished people now anchoring the network evening news. They field studio directions and news data, all the while looking nonplussed and authoritative. They speak off the top of their heads in a sensible way as information is beamed in via world-wide satellites while the show's on air. To manage all this, they must have their wits about them, not to mention a sense of historical context.

Yet to executives scrambling for shares of a shrinking network viewership, professional ability is not nearly enough. Dozens of men and women around the country - maybe scores - have the news skills to be network anchors. What they don't have is the required drawing power. To the corporations that now own the networks, anchors are not really ``newsmen.'' Newsmen don't get paid millions of dollars a year. Stars do.

``They're celebs. They're media stars,'' says Robert Goldberg, co-author (with Gerald J. Goldberg) of the new book ``Anchors'' (Birch Lane Press). ``Network news heads believe that if the three anchors went away for a week on vacation, nobody could tell one program from another,'' Mr. Goldberg told me over lunch the other day. He says research indicates that people tune into CBS, for instance, because they like Dan Rather, not because they can tell the difference between the CBS news-gathering team and the ABC team. ``So these guys become living logos,'' according to Mr. Goldberg. ``They're a means of selling the program.''

Even dedicated professionals like Mr. Rather command their millions mostly on the basis of ratings appeal. When ABC tried to steal Rather away from CBS a few years ago, it began a biding war that ultimately made Rather rich. Goldberg says that both ABC and CBS recognized that ``there's something about this guy that's irresistible to watch. He's got this head and this face, and he's so full of emotion and tension.''

The generic anchor produced by this star system has become ethnically standardized. On the commercial networks the regular anchors are white, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestants with successful wives, two or more kids, and - as Goldberg points out - ``all living within a few square blocks of each other in New York City.''

And their personalities are a blend of the cool and the high-powered, packaged in a clean-cut, unthreatening figure that projects the same kind of breathless dynamism whether announcing the outbreak of the Persian Gulf war or a local union meeting. Their very presence generates a sleekly McLuhanesque atmosphere, even when a man of medieval mentality is being interviewed. When ABC News's highly skilled and super-informed Peter Jennings was in Baghdad not long before the Persian Gulf war began, he spoke with Saddam Hussein.

On one side of the surreal exchange was the man who had made it big in the tyranny game partly as a professional torturer with a special knack getting people to talk. On the other sat Mr. Jennings - civilized, unruffled, speaking as he might to a school teacher or local mayor. It was a real-life version of the old `You Are There'' news-fantasy shows, whose ``reporters'' used to ``interview'' Gengis Khan or Napolean.

The inexorable slide toward the star system that explains such a spectacle got it's biggest shove from Walter Cronkite, who ironically hates the whole notion of news as show business. Before his historic reign as CBS news anchor was over, he had inadvertently invented the image of the newsman-celebrity. He became first person the term ``anchor '' was widely applied to and ended up being called ``Uncle Walter'' in spite of himself.

His fate is a good thing to remember next time you turn on the the evening news and think you're seeing a battle of news skills. Don't be fooled. It's show business.

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