Identity issues gnaw at newsies

From Couric to Williams, network anchors increasingly untethered

Here’s what’s happening in the network news business: Brian Williams has figured out he’s really Jimmy Fallon. Katie Couric has finally been de-anchored and CBS toppers have anointed Scott Pelley but seem nervous about the old credibility vs. charisma thing. Lawrence O’Donnell is hammering NBC to kick Donald Trump off his reality show (you both work for NBC, Larry) and, lurking in the wings, Keith Olbermann is about to reboot his bombast.

If all this seems surreal, think back to the recent Royal Wedding, which saw timezone-challenged anchors leaping between tornado-wracked Tuscaloosa and Tottenham, trying to figure out which was the bigger story. Elegantly coiffed and scripted for her regal encounters, Diane Sawyer looked downright depressed to turn her entire show over to coverage of rubble-strewn Alabama. Think, too, of the rumpled reporters summoned in the middle of the night last Sunday to pontificate about the demise of Osama bin Laden.

Pundits like to write off network news, but it’s still big business, Some 23.2 million viewers regularly tune in to their anchors, and while this is down from 28.5 million in 1999-2000, the numbers always jump in times of crisis. True, advertisers prefer the younger demos of other network fare; the average age of the audience for news shows hovers around 60 (witness the pharmaceutical ads), with the age for Fox News viewers even higher (perhaps only geriatrics can handle unrelenting ideology).

Jeff Fager, the new chairman of CBS News, is among those who believe the news business could use some rethinking. In the eight years since he took over “60 Minutes,” succeeding Don Hewitt, Fager has defied naysayers by improving both the show’s clout and its ratings.

In appointing Fager, Les Moonves said, “I like what happened at ’60 Minutes’ and I want the rest of CBS News to be like that.” To that end, Fager, a tactful but hard-driving news junkie, admits his impatience with the tendency of the nightly news to “package’ rather than report. Too often, he observes, an anchor will sum up a story, then cut to a reporter in the field who proceeds to do another wrap of regional events rather than to provide vivid on-scene reporting. “The viewer needs the immediacy of reporters sharing with us what they have discovered in their reporting,” Fager points out.

Despite the onrush of breaking news, network shows still cling to the stilted convention of confining hard news to seven or eight minutes of their telecasts then cutting to flaccid features on a medical study or a family-focused human-interest piece. On NBC, Brian Williams, while a gracious and reassuring presence, seems almost leisurely in providing his opening wrap, then introducing a correspondent who basically repeats the opening, all with the appropriate “thank-yous” and random congratulations that would befit an awards banquet. It’s little wonder that Williams welcomes his forays at standup comedy as a relief to heir-apparent news tedium.

If network anchors seem passive, O’Donnell, a relative newcomer to MSNBC, seems downright petulant in demanding that his parent company, NBC, remove Trump from “Celebrity Apprentice” for spreading “racist lies against President Obama” as part of an apparent presidential bid.

O’Donnell’s feisty tone is reminiscent of his predecessor, Olbermann, who is prepping his return to the airwaves next month via Current TV (co-founded by Al Gore). Olbermann’s next run of rants may not resonate too widely at first: Current claims it reaches 60 million homes compared with MSNBC’s 95 million, but the ever-reticent Olbermann suggests that was where MSNBC sat a decade ago when he got started.

Given the charged-up news landscape, Fager’s adventures at CBS will be watched carefully. Although Couric won praise for her Sarah Palin interview, she struggled to establish her hard-news credibility. Ironically she committed a minor goof at the Kate-and-William show by identifying a guest as Mohamed al-Fayed, father of Dodi Fayed, who was Princess Di’s lover. (It turned out to be the king of Tonga, who apparently looks like Mohamed al-Fayed.)

Fager wants to go for an anchor who looks like he knows what he’s talking about and is committed to getting it right. We can only hope that he and his reporters will even be given the time and staff to deliver a true picture of events as they unfold, without cutting to a feel-good tape about a baby shower in Kankakee.