Blowhards: Can You Spare A Dime?


Aaron Brown, the forelock-tugging philosopher/king of CNN whose intolerably unbearable insufferableness failed to catch on with audiences, was relieved of his duties in November. In general, it takes at least a decade's remove from career-peak to unemployment for a former anchorperson to become a revered media scold, but Brown watchers know that during his five years at the network he packed in a lifetime's worth of gravitas, carrying the weight of the world on those doughy shoulders night after night. So now he's in full Ape Lawgiver mode:

When NewsNight spent four hours covering the arrest of actor Robert Blake for the murder of his wife, Brown received thousands of e-mails criticizing the amount of time the show spent on the story. Nevertheless, that show, which aired in April 2002, received the highest ratings of any program since NewsNight's coverage of the November 2001 crash of American Airlines flight 587.

"Television is the most perfect democracy," Brown said. "You sit there with your remote control and vote." The remotes click to another channel when serious news airs, but when the media covers the scandals surrounding Laci Peterson, the Runaway Bride or Michael Jackson, "there are no clicks then," the journalist said.

With the departure from the screen of the "titans" — Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather — who "resisted the temptations of their bosses to go for the ratings grab, it will be years before an anchorman or anchorwoman will have the clout to fight these battles," he said.

Now if you're talking gravitas, nothing brings you thudding back to earth quite like Ted Koppel. From America Held Hostage, the most hysterical of all the media's Chicken Little reactions to the Iranian hostage crisis, through thousands of hours of Hostage's final incarnation as Nightline, Koppel's ability to pass off low-protein, decontextualized chat as serious news analysis made you understand why Dennis Hopper just needed to shout "You are so fucking suave!" Koppel has a new career as an Op/Ed columnist, and Jack Shafer takes a look:

Koppel wants his readers to believe—as he does—that a golden age of broadcasting existed "30 or 40 years ago," before the cable Mongols invaded, before the deregulation of broadcasting, before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine…

That's not my recollection of what sort of product the news divisions of CBS, NBC, and ABC turned out decades ago. Then as now, the news divisions took as their marching orders the accounts they'd read in the morning's New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal and bustled out to find pictures and graphics to go with them.

Nobody denies that all three networks did good work on occasion, but Koppel's vague recollections of excellence and service cry out for specifics. What terrific TV journalism are we saluting from days gone by? And is it really superior to today's TV journalism? If you, dear reader, could press a button on your remote control and delete the three cable news networks and the BBC World and restore the wonderful hegemony that the networks enjoyed in the halcyon years 1966 to 1976 that Koppel posits, would you?

When Koppel laments the fact that cable, satellite, and broadband have "overcrowded" the marketplace, making it "increasingly vulnerable to the dictatorship of the demographic"—that is, readers and viewers deciding what they want to consume rather than what the three broadcast networks think they should—he sounds like any other monopolist complaining about how the arrival of competition has dragged down quality. Is it a genuine disaster for the commonweal if the broadcast networks no longer operate fully staffed foreign bureaus in Vienna when readers and viewers, thanks to the Internet and cable and satellite TV, can consume timely newspapers accounts and broadcast reports from around the world? Who among us suffers because Pierre Salinger no longer files dispatches from his Parisian hotel room?

As I read Koppel's lame op-ed one last time, I wondered if I had been overrating him all these years. Granted, it's only one column, but had it arrived at the New York Times over the transom and without Koppel's byline, I'm certain the op-ed page would have rejected it. I can only surmise that Koppel convinced his editor to run his thin piece by reading it to him over the phone in the same stentorian voice he applies to his lines on television.

Brown's hope for another anchorbot who will restore the vigor of TV news (I expect that'll happen right after The Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson returns to declare that he really is the Messiah) lies at some distance from Koppel's bittersweet memories of an age he knows won't come again. But their attitudes are remarkably similar—a strange hybrid of social responsibility bromides and man-of-steel worshipfulness. In this interview with The Rake, Brown's suspicion of bloggers is the tell: The crisis in news (supposing that there is such a crisis) won't be solved by more data or more reporters, but by more strongmen who can wave aside the vagaries of pure democracy and restore The Republic to its former glory. Morituri te salutant, gentlemen!

Was Brown the victim of a conspiracy? Find out here.

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