Anchor says Holloway killed 'NewsNight'

It’s been almost two years since Aaron Brown was sacked in favor of Anderson Cooper, but since he was under contract with CNN until last week, he’s only now free to seek competitive employment — and to speak his mind.

“It’s oddly liberating,” he says. “Now I can do whatever I want and say whatever I want.”

In the interim, Brown has been teaching at Arizona State U., making speeches and training a Golden retriever at a comfortable, lived-in home in a suburb of New York City that reflects, in many ways, his informal TV persona.

“Anchormen are leading men,” he says. “If they made a movie about Peter Jennings Carey Grant would have played him; Peter Falk would have played me. I’m more of a character actor who wanted the job of leading man.”

The cerebral anchor left ABC News in early 2001 to become the “face” of CNN. Back then, bringing on a Jennings protege seemed like a logical response — and decent counterprogramming — to the onslaught of Fox News.

Brown’s first day as anchor, Sept. 11, 2001, ended up defining him professionally more than anything that came after.

“It was a big moment in national life and a big moment in the history of television, so to actually have that job and be able to tell a story that mattered, I don’t think I left anything on the table,” he says.

But over the next five years came the realization that the business of cable news was shifting and that he would probably not be able to shift with it. The low point came when he anchored four hours on the Robert Blake case.

“It was totally ridiculous,” Brown says. “We came in the next day and there were 6,000 emails. People were upset. They all said, ‘You told us you were going to be different.’ ”

But it was the net’s highest-rated block since the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Queens.

“It’s what people watch; I didn’t like doing it, and I don’t think people bought it from me,” he says.

But what truly killed off “NewsNight” was the story of missing teen Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in Aruba in 2005 and became a fixation for cable news. “We got our asses kicked — it was brutal,” Brown says of Fox’s aggressive coverage of the story. “People ask me if I miss it and I say, ‘You mean do I miss Anna Nicole Smith?’ ”

Now Brown is at work on a pilot for NPR and weighing his options.

One near-certainty is that he won’t be anchoring another TV news program — unless it’s the evening news for one of the networks or PBS.

“But that’s not realistic; it’s not going to happen, and that’s OK,” Brown says.

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