Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Tale Of Two Anchors

From Brian Williams's Dec. 18 Daily Nightly blog: "I talked to Charlie Gibson this afternoon, and there's a letter waiting for him at his home with some personal thoughts and good wishes. He is leaving the anchor chair tonight, leaving ABC after more than three decades with the same company. He's a friend and a good guy and has been a world-class competitor every night. These three network evening newscasts are at their best when we're all good, every night. And Charlie has helped to keep us that way. I wish him happy trails, and only the best."

Brian's insincere faux-homage to Gibson is a joke. The only aspect of this situation that Brian cares about is how he and his producers can capitalize on Gibson's departure (and Diane Sawyer's arrival) to improve the Nightly News ratings. No doubt Brian and his producers have been feverishly huddling with the NBC News research department to figure out how to capitalize on the changeover. It's really a shame that Gibson is retiring. He is, perhaps, the last of the hardy journalist-anchors who once dominated evening newscasts. With his departure, all three evening network newscasts will be anchored by talking-head newsreaders.

The contrast between Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams is stark. Gibson was the consummate anchor. Night after night, Gibson sat in his chair and told us what was going on across the country and around the world. It was never about him, it was always about reporting the news. Until his final week, I never even knew if Gibson was married or if he had children, because he never mentioned them on the air. And that was appropriate. With Brian, the news is always about him and his family. News stories will include information about his wife's favorite charities or when his kids go off to college (or when they come home for break). There are the almost-nightly Springsteen updates. Brian has made a point of trying to impress viewers by boasting that he is a Supreme Court buff, a presidential history buff, an aviation buff, an American car buff, a military buff, a space travel buff--if he were any more buff-y, he could be a vampire slayer. Gibson never told us what his hobbies were, because it wasn't important to the broadcast. (In fact, it can be detrimental to the supposed neutrality of the anchor.) He simply reported the news. Brian is a carnival barker. He constantly peppers his broadcasts with what he thinks are interesting facts (to show us how much he knows) or amusing comments (to show us how funny he is). Gibson was informative. Brian is condescending and pandering.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two is apparent when they are not anchoring. When Gibson had the evening off, the ABC News announcer would introduce that night's anchor by saying, "Reporting tonight...." When Brian has the evening off, he has instructed the NBC News announcer to introduce that night's anchor with, "Substituting tonight...." Substituting, not reporting. Gibson understands that the news, not the anchor, is the star. He knows that anyone can sit in that chair and report the news. But Brian truly believes he is the star. He imagines himself irreplaceable. He has to let us know that anyone else who sits in his chair is just a substitute.

Under Gibson, ABC's World News was known as the serious evening newscast. Brian has transformed NBC's Nightly News into the light and fluffy broadcast. On any given night, more than half of Brian's broadcast is devoted to non-news items like cuddly animals, cute (or sick) kids, military families or people who feed the homeless. I can only hope that Diane Sawyer continues in Gibson's tradition and doesn't turn World News into another Nightly News.

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