We take you now to the first paragraph of Houghton Mifflin's capsulization on the jacket of this otherwise hysteria-free history of network television news.
"Cronkite," it says. "Chancellor. Rather. Mudd. Walters. Reynolds. Brinkley. Reasoner."
Yes. You Are There.
All eight of these people are celebrities, powerful journalists and--for dramatic purposes, I suppose--even sentences unto themselves; they and many others are nevertheless carefully profiled and put into much-needed perspective by Barbara Matusow in the "The Evening Stars." The verbless blurb stands out, however, because it seems to sum up Matusow's reasons for writing the book--that the News is evermore the Names who dispense it--while simultaneously playing off the ever-expanding cult of personality worship.
Matusow does very little fretting per se about news personalities, leaving that to those of us who read, for instance, the verbatim clauses in Barbara Walters' $1 million "movie-queen" contract with ABC: "At such times as Artist performs any of the agreed-upon services at any location other than at Artist's base of operations, Artist shall be furnished with first-class hotel accommodations (suite if available), the services of Artist's regular hairdresser . . ."
But Matusow is ultimately fair to Walters, as she is to Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, Tom Brokaw, the late Frank Reynolds and the rest. "The Evening Stars," in fact, is not so shocking or ominous as some of the advance publicity (and such Ludlum-like chapter headings as "The Walters Fiasco" and "The Murrow Legacy") might have you believe. Matusow's anecdote-filled stories of network intrigue, image-building and empire-building are well told--from John Cameron Swayze's rotten-luck assignment to TV for the 1948 political conventions to CBS' million-dollar trench fight to keep Dan Rather from ABC in 1980.
The book's best moments come at the beginning and end--those chapters dealing with Dan Rather's rise to the anchorage of the "CBS Evening News," for a reported $25 million over 10 years and a significant hand in running the news division, and with ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge's quest, largely realized, to bring some pride and prestige to the Almost Broadcasting Company.
"Publicly, CBS justified choosing Rather over Mudd for the job by citing Dan's versatility and breadth of experience; no one mentioned the dirty word ratings," she writes, after describing the high-stakes tug of war for Rather's services between CBS and ABC. ABC's Arledge had offered Rather $2 million a year plus the chance to become ABC's "logo," such would be his on- and off-air presence there.
"It would be unduly cynical," says Matusow, "to suggest that their qualities as journalists and broadcasters played no part in the selection process; it was precisely because they fulfilled so many qualifications for the anchor job that Rather and Mudd made it to the final cut. Still, when it came down to choosing between them, the primary consideration was star quality--who would attract a larger audience."
Matusow details the rise of network news from its shuffling start in the '50s, when "the evening newscast was so primitive technically, so lacking in journalistic credibility, that the men who read the news were relatively humble figures," popular with the public "somewhat in the manner that game show hosts develop a following." Indeed, ABC's first evening news anchor, John Daly, was best known as moderator of "What's My Line?"
As network news progressed into the '60s, its visible leaders--specifically, the video visages of NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and CBS' Walter Cronkite--"began to assume an aura of moral and intellectual authority, a process abetted by the networks in the hope that the anchor's prestige would rub off on the organization as a whole."
Today, helped along by various agents of change on screen and off (though mostly by the agents, in the theatrical sense, of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters), Matusow says the anchors of the evening news have become "so powerful that they can cause the careers of correspondents to blossom or fade or they can derail the careers of executives to whom they nominally report."
This book gives you an excellent idea of what kind of say that reassuring man on your screen has in what he does--from the days when CBS' first evening newscaster, Douglas Edwards, read what was handed him, through those when Dan Rather found he wasn't working well with Walter Cronkite's producer, and soon enough had himself another.
Matusow makes it clear that Rather and company have not abused their ever-increasing authority, that personality has thus far not clashed significantly with content. But in spite of the competitive nature of network news, she seems to think this kind of abuse could very easily happen.