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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

End of an Anchor Era

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; 8:46 AM

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.

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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!' "

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.

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

Looky here: New Republic owner Martin Peretz, who backed his pal Al Gore against W. in 2000, says the Democrats should give the president more credit:

"If George W. Bush were to discover a cure for cancer, his critics would denounce him for having done it unilaterally, without adequate consultation, with a crude disregard for the sensibilities of others. He pursued his goal obstinately, they would say, without filtering his thoughts through the medical research establishment. . . .

"No, the president has not discovered a cure for cancer. But there is a pathology, a historical pathology, that he has attacked with unprecedented vigor and with unprecedented success. I refer, of course, to the political culture of the Middle East, which the president may actually have changed. And he has accomplished this genuinely momentous transformation in ways that virtually the entire foreign affairs clerisy--the cold-blooded Brent Scowcroft realist Republicans and almost all the Democrats--never thought possible. Or, perhaps, in ways some of them thought positively undesirable. Bush, it now seems safe to say, is one of the great surprises in modern U.S. history. Nothing about his past suggested that he harbored these ideals nor the qualities of character required for their realization. Right up to the moment Bush became president, I was convinced that his mind, at least on matters Levantine, belonged to his father and to James Baker III, whose worldview seemed to be defined by the pecuniary prejudice of oil and Texas: Keep the ruling Arabs happy. But I was wrong, and, in light of what has already been achieved in the Middle East, I am glad to say so. Most American liberals, alas, enjoy no similar gladness. They are not exactly pleased by the positive results of Bush's campaign in the Middle East. They deny and resent and begrudge and snipe. They are trapped in the politics of churlishness."

I anxiously await responses from "most American liberals."

We now know that Sandy Berger lied when he denied spiriting away classified papers, and InstaPundit says his misdemeanor plea and $10,000 fine are not enough:

"So Berger stole, and destroyed, classified documents as part of a politically motivated coverup. Let's just be clear about that. Criminal penalties, aside, the man's career in public life should be over, and he certainly should never have access to classified documents again. Unfortunately, the penalty he'll actually receive looks rather light -- certainly lighter than most folks who stole and destroyed classified documents would undergo. That makes it all the more important that the details of his misbehavior get plenty of attention, and that they're remembered long-term."

National Review Editor Rich Lowry is glad that a presidential commission found no evidence of political pressure in the prewar assessments on WMD, but is less than happy with the former CIA chief:

"If there was a fundamental problem in how policymakers and intelligence officials interacted, it was that policymakers, again and again, were not made aware of the thinness and questionable reliability of much of the information about Iraq. In other words, intelligence agencies poorly served Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the hawks, not the other way around.

"On the one hand, it is understandable that the intel was so fouled up. We assumed that Saddam had the worst intentions. If he wasn't cooperating with the United Nations, he must have been developing something nasty. The report, over and over, says that these assumptions -- crucial to all the analysis -- had 'a powerful air of common sense' and were 'not unreasonable.' On the other hand, there were so many frank factual errors and sloppy practices in all this that former CIA head George Tenet should have his recently awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom revoked."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum draws a very different conclusion on the no-political-pressure question:

"If that's the case, why did the Pentagon feel the need to set up an Office of Special Plans in order to look at the raw data independently and construct the hawkish analysis they believed the CIA was too timid to produce? . . .

"If the CIA was already championing the idea that Iraq had loads of WMD and close ties to al-Qaeda, Donald Rumsfeld wouldn't have needed Special Plans. The fact that he did must have meant that -- at least in the early days after 9/11 -- the CIA wasn't quite the uncritical cheerleader the commission says it was. At least, not uncritical enough for the rest of the Bush administration."

While the rest of the world was focused on Terri Schiavo, some Republicans were thinking about another woman: Hillary. GOP strategist Patrick Ruffinisays:

"Beating Hillary is going to require a tough as nails campaign, at least as tough as anything Kerry had to face. But it would be a mistake to the think that rehashing '90s Hillary-bashing will do the trick. Instinctively, I think voters will punish the side seen as the most backward-looking -- which presents an opportunity. Once Hillary starts harping on the good ol' days of the '90s, hit back on the complacency and prosperity-induced lull that culminated in 9/11, and very quickly pivot to the future. Our candidate should make clear that he or she does not want to return to the status quo of any decade, but to lead America into the future. Remember also that the Bush campaign could have easily run a cookie-cutter campaign with the obvious line of attack of Kerry as Massachusetts liberal. Instead they settled on the resolute vs. flip-flopper narrative that nicely suited the political environment in 2004, playing to the President's strengths. The campaign in '08 will similarly have to tailor its lines of attack to suit the political environment, not simply reach back fifteen years into history.

"Make no mistake: beating Hillary is going to be hard work. Hillary-hatred isn't going to do the trick any more than Bush-hatred did. America's President must be an icon, and Hillary has this going for her: she already is an icon of the Left. To think we can skate by with a relative unknown who's simply the anti-Hillary and who doesn't have the self-confidence to build beyond the base (Kerry's mistake) would be a colossal error."

Peggy Noonan is also worried about the former first lady:

"Republicans -- I have been among many -- are now in the stage of the Hillary Conversation in which they are beginning to grouse about those who keep warning that Mrs. Clinton will be a formidable candidate for president in 2008. She won't be so tough, they say. America will never elect a woman like her, with such a sketchy history -- financial scandals, political pardons, the whole mess that took place between 1980 and 2000 . . .

"Because we live in a more or less 50-50 nation; because Mrs. Clinton is smarter than her husband and has become a better campaigner on the ground; because her warmth and humor seem less oily; because she has struck out a new rhetorically (though not legislatively) moderate course; because you don't play every card right the way she's been playing every card right the past five years unless you have real talent; because unlike her husband she has found it possible to grow more emotionally mature; because the presidency is the bright sharp focus of everything she does each day; because she is not going to get seriously dinged in the 2008 primaries but will likely face challengers who make her look even more moderate and stable; and because in 2008 we will have millions of 18- to 24-year-old voters who have no memory of her as the harridan of the East Wing and the nutty professor of HillaryCare . . .

"Can a Republican beat her? Sure. She'll have to make mistakes, and she will. And he (it will be a he; it's not Condi, because the presidency is not an entry-level political office) will have to be someone who stands for big, serious and solidly conservative things, and really means it, which will mark a nice contrast with Mrs. Clinton, who believes only in herself. He will also have to be able to do the delicate dance of running against a woman without seeming scared, patronizing, nervous or macho."

From a more sympathetic viewpoint, the New Republic's Noam Scheiber cites an NYT account in forecasting trouble for Hillary:

"This, in a nutshell, is why it's going to be so hard for Hillary Clinton to win a presidential election:

"In a fund-raising e-mail message sent out on Thursday, Mrs. Clinton's campaign also said her critics were preparing an advertising campaign against her similar to the one orchestrated by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that attacked Senator John Kerry's Vietnam service during the presidential election.

"Hillary is doing yeoman's work, in my mind, repositioning both herself and the party on issues like abortion and national security. (Actually, only some of it is repositioning--i.e., changing substance--some of it is simple re-framing, i.e., changing rhetoric.) But she's always going to have this huge sucker-punch-ability problem. That is, the right can always launch a nasty smear campaign against her, which then gets the backs up of people on the left, who rush to her defense (with or without prodding from Hillary's fundraising staff), thereby undercutting her carefully crafted image as a moderate. I'm just not sure how she avoids this."

Well, she's got three years to figure it out.

© 2005 washingtonpost.com