Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and the Evening News

By Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg

Birch Lane/Carol Publishing. 399 pp. $19.95

On one level, this book is the story of how three networks turned three handsome newsmen into anchors, superstars and finally anchor-monsters.

On another level, "Anchors" is a book about relics of the big era of network television, a detailed analysis of the late 20th-century newscaster who may soon be as dated as a black-and-white TV.

While Tom, Peter and Dan scramble for every viewer, the mighty zappers have taken their toll. Viewers have strayed from the good ol' networks to video games or movies or Headline News or all of the above, in 10-second intervals. Moreover, for the up-to-the-minute news, the cognoscenti now turn to C-SPAN or Cable News Network for news without the star stuff. What do any of us know about CNN anchor Bernard Shaw's family life? Does anybody have any idea where Bobbie Battista went to college?

In contrast to C-SPAN and CNN, the networks become more noticeably what they really are -- entertainment businesses that promote the evening news shows to maintain a patina of respectability. If news breaks during, say, "America's Funniest Home Videos," network executives grit their teeth, break into the show and count the golden seconds evaporating before their eyes.

Thus, this book about network anchors -- full of research and information about Dan, Peter and Tom -- is history.

Robert and Gerald Jay Goldberg, a father-and-son team, have done a considerable amount of work documenting the inner machinations of the three networks and their anchors, who seem more similar than they are different once their backgrounds, goals and ambitions are laid out side by side by side.

The Peter-Dan-Tom persona is ambitious, insecure, powerful, rich and accustomed to the trappings of fame. Sure, Peter is smoother, Dan is more excitable and Tom is the charmer. But as the Goldbergs rightly say: "Fundamentally, they are, in fact, surprisingly similar, these three men who all got their start {sic} as radio disk jockeys talking to tiny audiences and wound up addressing the nation."

Robert Goldberg is television critic for the Wall Street Journal. Gerald Jay Goldberg, professor of English at UCLA, is also a novelist. The combination works well, and anyone interested in the way network news operates -- especially at the top -- is treated to data presented with extraordinary clarity.

One of the most interesting sections of this book concerns the future of network news and its supersalesmen. The Goldbergs suggest that the networks have given little real thought about who should replace their anchors. When they do talk of the next generation, however, the network executives are still talking about news stars, not newsmen and women. At NBC, Brokaw's successors are believed to be either Bryant Gumbel or Jane Pauley, the authors suggest. "Like Gumbel, Pauley is low on news experience ... She has charm. She has intelligence. She has charisma. She has everything but twenty years of reporting the news." The NBC corporate executives, whose parent company is General Electric, by the way, have seen the future and it is Lite.

At ABC, the potential heirs are Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer and perhaps Chris Wallace. At CBS, it is Connie Chung, who is known as "one of the best newsreaders in the business" but who is also a "mediocre ad-libber, and her news experience has thus far been limited to documentaries on such subjects as weight loss ..."

Perhaps the reason that successors have not been carefully groomed is that some television executives aren't sure there should be any. The Goldbergs quote NBC producer Jack Chesnutt as saying: "We wonder if we're taking the last ride on the dinosaur."

The authors also explain how some at NBC have been rethinking the whole evening news format, wondering whether NBC News should be converted into a news-gathering operation for local affiliate stations. It's hard to imagine the network news operations turning into video wire services. It's hard to think of Garrick Utley sonorously feeding news to Live at Five from, say, South Africa. "Hi, Chuck and Barb, I'm here on the streets of Johannesburg and ..."

As the Goldbergs themselves write, their subjects "have gotten to the peak of their profession just as the whole damn mountain has started to shake."

The reviewer covered media news for The Washington Post.