For years, we Americans have enjoyed a love-hate relationship with our television news anchors. We trust them to frame the issues of the day and present us with a snapshot of the world as it is. (Or, at least, the world as they see it…)
We turn to them again and again in moments of crisis, for information, comfort, and a communal connection with others. In fact, in times of crisis you could argue that TV news anchors draw millions of us together in a way that no other media source –no one else anywhere, really– can.
But the unspoken underbelly of TV news anchors is that they not only have to be sharp and professional journalists, but they also have to be easy on the eye. I am not saying I believe this to be fair. I am saying that if you asked 100 journalists about it, the vast majority would give you Walter Cronkite’s answer: It’s just “the way it is.”
The movie “Broadcast News” famously brought this truth to the big screen. It pitted the characters of William Hurt and Albert Brooks against each other. In the film, Hurt plays a “pretty boy” who knows virtually nothing of journalism, but somehow manages to ascend to “the chair,” as the lead anchor of a network news show. Brooks plays an intelligent, well trained, but far-too-self-aware, journeyman reporter who knows the world, knows his profession, and knows that none that matters in a world where style so often trumps substance.
At the end of the movie, Brooks walks away from the insanely-manic pace of the network newsroom, content to live out his days as a local reporter for a Seattle affiliate. Hurt, the pretty boy, becomes a broadcast news institution.
Of course, there is an even deeper, and crasser, level to this “style vs substance” dynamic. The deeper level is the unfair double standard concerning women and men on TV news.
Yes, men are mostly expected to be “pretty boys.” But some of them aren’t. Cronkite was a lovable grandfather. Koppel looked vaguely like Alfred E. Newman. Guys can get away that, so long as we believe them to be consummate journalistic professionals.
Women cannot. They are not only expected to be consummate professionals, but they are also expected to be…well…”Babes.”
Even with his grandfatherly countenance, Cronkite might still be able to chair the CBS News today. He knows the world, he knows the news. It doesn’t matter how he looks. Katie Couric not only has to know the world and know the news, but she has to look “pretty” doing it too.
Again, I’m not saying this is fair or right. In fact, it’s more than a little sick, and really quite sexist.
But leave it to FOX to push this envelope as far as it will go. FOX –the network that gave a whole new meaning to “style over substance”– is in the process of editing a new reality show called “Anchorwoman.”
The premise of the show places a woman, whose only credentials appear to be that she is a “babe,” in the anchor chair of a Tyler Texas newsroom. The woman, Lauren Jones, is a former swimsuit model and pro-wrestling…ahem…”personality.” She has ZERO training as a journalist. She has ZERO experience as a journalist.
But for reasons still unclear to me, a Tyler TV station allowed FOX to insert her into their staff, and even gave her the “chair” as coanchor of their local evening news. Then, they allowed FOX to follow her –and the rest of their staff- around with cameras, to see just what kind of wacky, oddball, hilarity might ensue.
Here is a Good Morning America clip that talks about Ms. Jones, the Tyler station, and the ethical issues involved:
Let me say –and I hope you all noted– that the brief GMA clip of the “average” Tyler “woman on the street” indicates that she’s really embarrassed by this whole episode. Many of us here in Texas are. This is FOX thing, not a Texas thing. Please keep that in mind. (Please?)
And the thing that gets me about all this is not that FOX came up with this idea. I expect that from them. They’re FOX. What really gets me is the choice of this TV station to play along.
Why in the heck did the editors at this station (A CBS affiliate, btw…) allow this?! Do they really see their newsroom as nothing more than a playground for some crass cultural experiment? Isn’t it still a real newsroom? Aren’t there some standards of journalistic professionalism that need to be embraced and held sacred?
Or, have we really come to a place where style does trump substance, and such things just don’t matter anymore?
After all, since all the customer sees is the image of a body in a chair, maybe looking good really is all that matters. Maybe any old good-looking body can do it.
Since most of the TV news appears to be about Paris Hilton, maybe it’s just the natural evolution of things to have the news read by Paris Hilton.
Hey….speaking Paris Hilton…
You see, into this sorry state of affairs comes a real TV anchorwoman who gives me the hope that substance isn’t quite dead yet.
Mika Brzezinski –daughter of former Carter cabinet member, Zbigniew– is a respectable journalist with MSNBC. Several weeks ago now, she did something on MSNBC’s new morning show, “Morning Joe,” that caused quite a stir in the journalistic world.
Brzezinski’s task was to provide short, top-of-the-hour, news breaks on the show hosted by Joe Scarborough. But on this day, she decided she would not “lead” with a yet another story about Paris Hilton.
Apparently, she actually believed there were others stories more deserving of the lead position that morning. You know, like maybe the war? Maybe…I don’t know…the Attorney General scandal? Maybe the key Republican Senator who, that very morning, had announced his break with the President on the issue of the war, and his newly found support for bringing the troops home now?
Gee, maybe, she thought, one of those is the real lead story of the day.
But no. Her editors gave her yet another in the endless cycle of trivial and vacuous Paris Hilton stories. That was to be her lead.
But on this particular morning, something in Mika Brzezinski snapped. For three successive “news breaks” that morning, she refused to follow the instructions of her bosses. She wouldn’t do the story on Paris Hilton. She and the other on-air personalities treat it with a sense of humor. They joke about it. But you can also sense a very real frustration simmering in her, just below the surface.
Take a look:
People seem to be captured by, and enamored with, this small “protest” by Brzezinski. In fact, 2.8 million people have watched the above clip on YouTube. That is HUGE.
And, she has become something of a celebrity among her fellow journalists, and folks like me, who are cheered by her actions. In an AP story after-the-fact, Brzezinski says this:
“I could not get through the first three words without crumbling. My skin was crawling. This was our lead? On a day like this?”
And as for the positive reaction to her little on-air-protest, she offers up this thought:
“Among journalists it touched a nerve because I think we’re tired of pretending this is important. We also know that, deep down inside, our viewers know that we don’t believe this is news. They can’t. They can’t think we’re that dumb.”
Happily, her MSNBC bosses have actually seen fit to give her the “chair” on a new hour-long morning news show. And I will point out that, in the past few weeks, the rest of the media seems to finally have gotten the hint that nobody’s all that concerned about Paris Hilton.
On his show, Keith Olbermann used to introduce Paris-Hilton-like stories with the tag line “another story my producers are making me cover.” He would say it in jest. But you also always hoped he really believed it too.
Mika Brzezinski reminded us that he’s not alone. She reminded us that perhaps it does matter who sits in “the chair.” A bimbo is probably never going to “get” that a story about a bimbo is not a lead story. A swimsuit model is probably never going to grasp that it’s really not even news at all. And a wrestling “personality” is probably never going to have the guts to stand up to her editors on live national television.
Hopefully, now and then, a journalist will.
And hopefully, now and then, we’ll continue to be reminded that, in the end, substance still does matter.