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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Leaving the Anchor Desk, Its Greatest Generation

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page C01

In the fall of 1988, Michael Dukakis was droning on in his impassive way when Ted Koppel cut him short: "I still don't think you get it." At that moment, the cognoscenti concluded, the presidential campaign was over.

In the summer of 1996, Koppel packed up and left the Republican convention in San Diego, assailing it as a non-news event and sparking a round of media soul-searching over such stage-managed extravaganzas.

(ABC News)

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In the spring of 2004, Koppel read the names of every American who had died in Iraq, prompting some affiliates to boycott his program as an unacceptably political statement.

What is it about Koppel's generation of larger-than-life anchors that their careers became so intertwined with the narrative of American history as experienced through the small screen? In a business where hotshot personalities come and go with the frequency of "American Idol" contestants, why have the recent departures of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and now the 25-year host of "Nightline" fostered such end-of-an-era emotions?

The fading mental snapshots of these anchors in action mark the major events of our time: Rather talking back to Richard Nixon, shouting at George H.W. Bush, quizzing Saddam Hussein. Brokaw at the Berlin Wall as it was coming down or interviewing aging members of what he dubbed the Greatest Generation. Koppel in helmet and military-style fatigues, braving a sandstorm as U.S. tanks rolled into Iraq to launch a war.

They came of professional age during Vietnam -- Rather, the oldest, was on the air the day JFK was killed -- a time when television was becoming a real-time force in chronicling triumph and tragedy. And for the next two decades, they worked for the three networks that dominated the media landscape in a way that will never be duplicated, given the rise of a round-the-clock culture of information bombardment.

But it was more than that. There was something in their personalities, some combination of ambition, intelligence and adaptability, that enabled them to thrive in a crowded marketplace.

"Ted is known as a really stubborn, pigheaded guy," says Tom Bettag, his longtime producer, who earlier worked as Rather's producer. "Dan and Ted are people who have both told their bosses, 'That's not me and I'm not going to do it.' . . . They did years and years of preparation so that when they stepped into the chair, they were fully formed and knew who they were. What really defines them is that they're both real reporters."

There is a fine line, of course, between putting your stamp on a news story and becoming part of the story -- a line that Rather occasionally crossed, both with his combative interviews and his botched story on President Bush's National Guard record. Koppel made news because he had a way of pushing people -- with a "forgive me" or "I must tell you" -- off their talking points.

He told Gary Hart during the Donna Rice flap: "Senator, forgive me, there's a certain hypocrisy inherent in what you're saying here." He told a renowned televangelist: "Old Jim Bakker seems to be doing what Jim Bakker has always done, and that is hustling a buck." He told Al Campanis, the Los Angeles Dodgers executive later fired for disparaging blacks: "That really sounds like garbage, if you'll forgive me for saying so."

"Nightline" regularly tackled such difficult fare as racial tensions, AIDS and terrorism -- in a time slot where viewers can flip to Letterman and Leno. Richard Hanley of Quinnipiac University's School of Communications calls Koppel's departure a "tragedy" for more reflective news coverage: " 'Nightline' provided more of a sober take on things without being so dry you couldn't watch it. On cable, people step on each other's lines because that's the format. It's noise." Hanley says anchors like Koppel and Brokaw have "the firm-but-fair father figure aesthetic."

If the anchors indeed played the parental role, they began at a time when news was served up only at breakfast and dinnertime. No one thought you could do news at 11:30 p.m. -- that was Johnny Carson's turf -- until Roone Arledge used the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran to steal the time slot for ABC News.

"They were our emcees to history in the formative years of electronic journalism," says Erik Sorenson, who worked with Brokaw as president of MSNBC and once produced Rather at the "CBS Evening News." "That universe is splintering apart. . . . Their roles have been deconstructed, from 'Saturday Night Live' all the way to the blogosphere."

Meaning? "America is now on to the TelePrompTer, and the idea that these people are totally objective -- that's all been blown apart. These guys ruled the airwaves and gave us our minimum daily requirement of electronic news. It'll never be the same, and it's not the new guys' fault."

The fault, say some critics, lies with an increasingly shrill news culture in which outlets from Fox News to Air America seem more focused on arguing than reporting.

"The audience has changed," says Leroy Sievers, a former "Nightline" executive producer. "People don't necessarily want to hear both sides of the story, which is what 'Nightline' did best. They want to hear, 'You're right! They're wrong!' "

Talking Points (Cont'd)

The flap about a Washington Post report on an unsigned strategy memo in the Terri Schiavo case, which the paper said was "distributed to Republican senators," isn't going away.

It turns out that The Post's news service put out an early version of the March 20 story -- published by numerous other papers -- that said the talking points, which touted the Schiavo case as a political opportunity, were "distributed to Republican senators by party leaders." GOP congressional leaders say they never saw the document, whose author remains unknown. Post reporter Mike Allen, who was unaware the news service had distributed the earlier version, said last week that the paper was careful not to say it was "a Republican memo."

Kate Carlisle, the news service's managing editor, says Allen's report was sent out at 9:07 the night before and "we weren't notified that changes had been made to the story after we got it." Despite criticism from bloggers, and Allen's request for a correction, Carlisle said no correction was warranted. Late Friday, the news service sent out an "advisory" saying: "The version of the article published by the paper did not specify the authorship and noted that the memo was unsigned. The authorship remains unknown." The advisory did not retract the assertion that "party leaders" had given out the memo.

Tavis Smiling

When we last left Tavis Smiley, he had quit National Public Radio with some bitter, racially charged blasts about the network's attitude toward African Americans -- although he acknowledged that NPR was paying him well.

Now Smiley has struck a deal with Public Radio International and hopes to be back on many of the same stations by month's end. He will own the two-hour weekend program -- NPR rules prevented him from owning his daily show there -- and is lining up underwriters.

"We were offered any number of commercial deals," Smiley says. "We didn't do satellite radio. I wasn't leaving NPR to cash in. I love public radio."

Smiley, who will be joined by some of his old contributors, such as Cornel West, says PRI will be spending six figures to promote the program -- another point of contention with NPR. And he may produce other programs with PRI "that would be of interest to people of color." Eleanor Harris, PRI's senior vice president, says, "We've gotten more calls [from stations] than we've ever gotten for a new program."


"Probe Faults Annan" -- Wednesday's Washington Times

"Kofi Annan Cleared in Corruption Probe" -- Wednesday's Washington Post

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