"This is a shooting on the Beltway, people! This is something people care about! Because it could happen to them! Rush-hour traffic! Unsuspecting drivers!" Maury Povich is trying to get Jaycee Cooper fired up. Jaycee is sitting behind a big wooden desk, where she has been reading the news off a TelePrompTer. It's a dreary midweek morning and 10 of us are sitting on metal folding chairs. We're in a basement TV studio at the University of Maryland. Maury is teaching us how to become TV anchorpeople. "Montgomery County police are looking for a red . . . minivan with black . . . tinted windows," Jaycee says. "Stop!" commands Maury just as she takes a breath to begin anew. "You were off on the tag." A tag is the last line of a news report, the sentence read by the anchor right after the field reporter has summarized the who-what-when-where of the story. In this case, Jaycee is turning the tag into a throwaway line. It should not be a throwaway line. "That's as important as any line," Maury booms in his gruff Maury voice. "Give it as much emphasis as you can. Give it meaning!" The people around me are listening intently. Some are taking notes. In a room down the hall, our other instructor, veteran TV news producer Herb Brubaker, is teaching eight more would-be Brokaws and Rathers the finer points of writing TV news copy. For Jaycee and the others, this is serious business. They've paid $500 each for a day of intensive training from Brubaker and Povich, who used to be an anchorman before he became, well, "Maury!" Lured by Povich's star power, my classmates have come from all over -- Orlando, Los Angeles, Dallas, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Charleston. Some are kids still in college. Most are TV pros looking to move on or up, like Jaycee, who is 43, blond and from Vancouver, B.C. All aspire to the summit: to sit behind that big desk each night at 6 and 11, gaze into the TelePrompTer and speak with utter conviction about . . . shootings on the Beltway! Fires! Mayhem! At the end of the day, they will leave with a demo tape of themselves anchoring a four-minute newscast, which could be their ticket to the big desk. But first they must learn the art of the anchor: how to pace themselves, how to switch cameras, how to modulate their voices. Most of all, they must learn how to connect through the camera. They must master meaning. The closest I've ever come to being an anchorman is when I was a college intern at a TV station in Los Angeles. I hustled copy and hung around the news "team." Our anchor was an up-and- coming news reader named Connie Chung, who now happens to be Mrs. Maury Povich. I didn't learn much there, though I did get on TV frequently by hovering around the "open" newsroom in which Connie anchored the 5 and 6 o'clock news. Having been a print reporter for nearly 20 years since then, I've been conditioned to accept my profession's prevailing prejudice about TV news people -- namely, that they're a bunch of pretty faces in empty suits. My first encounter with the members of Prof. Povich's class does nothing to shatter the first part of the stereotype. They are mostly young, mostly tall and, above all, beautifully coiffed. Maybe because my own hair is disappearing, I can't help but notice all the telegenic hair around me. There's blond hair, all feathered and swooshed and flipped. There's red hair with highlights, dark hair in waves. And the women have pretty nice hair, too. Among the more striking beings is Kristin Ludecke, whose brunette locks are wound and bound and lacquered into one of those amazingly airtight constructions you find only on beauty pageant contestants. But Kristin isn't, by any means, an empty suit. She tells me that she sings opera, that she's a few months away from finishing her master's degree in communications at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, that she's done lots of public speaking, though very little TV news reporting. Kristin started college at 15. She's 20 now. "I've always wanted to be a performer," she says by way of explaining why she's here. "I like being in front of people. Opera is my first love, but TV news seems a lot more predictable." She says she's willing to pay her dues at some nowhere station for a while, but she's clearly a hard charger. "I'd love to go to New York," she says brightly. "The bigger the better!" Later on, she gives me her business card. I'm surprised that a 20-year-old even has a business card, but I'm stopped by the title printed beneath her name: "Miss Florida, 1995-96." The rest of the group is a mixed bag of ambition, experience and skill. Sharon Fiordbak was a TV reporter 20 years ago and now wants to get back into the business after a detour as an entertainment lawyer in Dallas. Michelle Reed, 26, works in marketing in the Washington area. Susan Quello Montgomery, who is 31 and lives in Charleston, S.C., has been a TV ad saleswoman but has never been in front of the camera. She's so eager to break in that she says she's willing to work for nothing. Clarence Reynolds, 33, one of two African Americans in the class, has come tantalizingly close to the big desk. He worked as a TV reporter in Roanoke, he says, but "I got too emotional. I couldn't stick my mike in front of a woman whose son has just gotten killed." So he went to meteorology school, thinking he'd become a weatherman. Instead, he wound up at QVC, the cable home-shopping channel, as an on-air host "selling tchotchkes" for five years. He even did a stint as a deejay at a radio station in Charlotte. Nowadays, Clarence is producing a weekly magazine show for the Orlando PBS affiliate. Gregory Frank, a 25-year-old from the District, says he's "always had the TV bug" since he studied broadcast journalism at Emerson College in Boston. But Gregory also took his eyes off the prize. When he moved to Washington a few years ago, he wound up starting his own business. He, too, hands me a card. It says, "Mom's Laundry." Anchoring the news probably seems like a pretty glamorous racket for people in Gregory's line of work, or even in Sharon Fiordbak's, but it's not all bright lights and happy talk. All those "Eyewitness News" and "Action Team" anchors are like migratory birds, flitting from market to market to improve their place in the TV news chain. Job security tends to depend on the next ratings book; a one-year contract is pretty standard for most young anchors. (Povich, who now makes a reported $10 million a year as host of his own talk show, started in the news business in the early 1960s, and has worked at stations in Washington, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.) Of course, network news stars like Ted Koppel and Diane Sawyer command millions of dollars in salary, and anchors at big-city stations in New York or Washington usually earn $500,000 or more per year. But the field is crammed with wannabes and would-bes, and the vast majority of stations are not in New York or Washington. The median salary for anchors last year was $40,000, according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association. In fact, the best money in local TV often isn't even in front of the camera. It's behind it, running the whole show. At many stations, particularly smaller ones, news directors are the highest-paid employees, according to the RTNDA. My classmates know most of this, and it doesn't seem to matter at all. The anchor, after all, is a totemic figure -- more than a town crier, more than a familiar face, more like a shaman who can summon clarity out of the chaos beyond people's living rooms. Consider: More people get their news from local TV stations than any other media source, according to a recent Roper poll. And consider further: Respondents to the same poll ranked local TV anchors third in truthfulnesss, behind only the clergy and physicians. The difference is that people usually know their clerics and doctors personally. But that's the thing about anchoring the news: It's your job to make people feel as if they know you, too. Maury and Herb explain the drill. Everyone gets one rehearsal behind the desk, and then the cameras roll. Herb hands out a three-page script that contains the four "packages," or complete voice-and-tape stories, that we'll be presenting. It includes the Beltway shooting, the announcement of an independent study of the District's police force, a short feature about con men who have been fraudulently soliciting funds in behalf of a 5-year-old HIV-positive girl named Precious Thomas, and a wrap-up of international events marking World AIDS Day. I'm mystified by the abbreviations in the script: "(VO)," "(SOT)," "OC," "PKG: 1:29." I soon learn that the last refers to the time allotted for each package. SOT is "sound on tape," which means the audio portion of a taped interview. OC is "out cue," which is the last piece of SOT we hear before the tape ends and we're back on camera. Our job is to wrap introductions and voice-overs (VOs) around these packages. The four packages have been carefully selected. They differ from one another in subtle but important ways. What Herb and Maury want us to do is to create a different "tone" for each. The shooting, for example, demands controlled urgency, while the AIDS news has to be delivered with something approaching sober reverence. The anchor has to know how to bring just the right inflection, Maury tells us. What he doesn't say is how. Instead, as we study our scripts, he strolls back and forth across the studio and advises: "Internalize the meaning of every story. Make sure you know how to pronounce every word. Try to make it as familiar as possible. Digest it! If you have a love of news, if you feel this is your calling, you should be able to give that feeling to your viewer." When Maury starts blocking out something called "camera switches" with floor director Jenny Harrington, I turn to Clarence Reynolds for an explanation. "It's when the anchor turns his body and looks into a second camera," Clarence explains patiently. "Only you don't just turn. It's like a Ping-Pong ball. You go down" -- here he dips his head -- "turn and come up." Camera switches give a sense of movement to the newscast. Anchors employ the move periodically, except they don't get to decide when they'll casually drop it in. As we wait, Maury and Jenny look over the script and pick the best spots for a switch. Both parts of the choreography are important. The anchor swivels so that he doesn't look as if he's staring at the same spot all the time. But if all he did was swivel, he might look robotic. The head dip gives the impression that the anchor is briefly studying his notes, gathering the facts from those white pages like a dynamo gathering energy. In fact, I soon learn that the typed script isn't really a script. It's a prop. Anchors may study the script before they go on camera, but most don't read from it once the camera's red light goes on. They know what to say from the TelePrompTer, which scrolls the copy on a screen fixed just beneath the camera's eye. The pace of the scroll is set by the director, who knows how fast the anchor needs to be reading to stay in sync with the taped material. Nevertheless, Maury tells us to "use" the script, to glance down at it from time to time even when we're not doing camera switches. "It will give viewers the feeling, I know what I'm talking about,' " he says. Jaycee volunteers to go first. Jenny Harrington, wearing a headset, gets into position just out of camera range. With a vigorous wave of Jenny's hands, Jaycee is off: "A shooting on the Beltway tops our news this morning . . ." Then she stops. "Can you get the TelePrompTer to keep up with me?" she asks. She tries a second take, but the first taped piece pops up before she finishes her introduction. Take three: The first taped story finishes, but Jaycee is too slow reading the tag, the thing about the cops and the red minivan. Take four: Jaycee gets the timing right, but the director in the control booth switches cameras several moments before Jaycee has done the dip-and-turn. On a huge monitor set up beside the anchor desk, we see that this is disastrous: Jaycee is reading the news in profile. The anchor is never supposed to be seen in profile; it makes her look remote or awkward or, worst of all, unfriendly. As these kinks are worked out, an otherwise invisible element of the news emerges. It takes an extraordinary degree of timing and stagecraft to create a news "performance" that seems both effortless and urgent. Anchors have to hit their cues precisely; TelePrompTers have to scroll the script at just the right pace; lead-ins and lead-outs to the packages have to be seamless. If any one of these elements is the least bit off, the effect is deadly. The anchor looks as if she doesn't know what she's talking about. But the technical details may be the easy part. As my classmates troop one after the other to the big desk, it's obvious that there's more to it than knowing which camera to look into. After 50 years of watching anchors read the news, viewers have internalized the rhythm, the look, the tone of the anchor. These elements have been subject to satire for at least a generation now, but they are so deeply ingrained in viewers that the risk of self-parody is slight. Aspiring anchors deviate from conventional expectations at their peril. As Michelle Reed settles in for her turn, the subtle differences between pro and semipro start to become clear. Michelle, who has the soft voice and facial features of the actress Melanie Griffith, certainly presents a pleasing image to the camera. But on her first dry run, she seems diffident about the shooting story, tentative about the exploitation of little Precious Thomas and almost sluggish about the events marking World AIDS Day. "You're telling stories, you're not reading copy," Maury practically yells at her. Michelle cranks it back up again, giving it a little more bounce: ". . . But now Precious and her adoptive mother have another fight on their hands . . . against con artists . . . who authorities . . . who authorities say -- " She looks plaintively at Maury. "It's okay to make a mistake," he says. "You'd rather make a mistake than say it in a way that has no meaning." Just as scripts aren't really scripts, mistakes aren't really mistakes -- they're signs of imperfection that affirm the anchor's connection to the viewer. As Maury puts it, "A mistake says to the viewer, I'm just like you.' " On take three, Michelle pushes the energy level up three notches. Maury wants four. "C'mon, Michelle," he urges, pacing closer to the desk. "Get into it: I'm Michelle Reed and I'm giving it to you! AND I WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND!' " "A shooting on the Beltway tops our news this morning . . ." There! Her voice is firmer now, stronger. I can hear it, and so can everyone else. She starts picking out words in the copy, giving a different coloration to each sentence. She's starting to sound like . . . an anchor. Is this, I wonder, the meaning of "meaning"? Is this highly refined performance art the essence of TV news? Povich and Brubaker bristle when I bring this up later. "This isn't acting school," Brubaker says forcefully. "We're not Barbie and Ken dolls. We're journalists." He certainly knows whereof he speaks; he's been in the business since the early 1960s, which is when he met and first worked with Povich, who was then a radio reporter. Over the years, Brubaker has worked as a producer for dozens of anchors and reporters, including the inimitable Irving R. Levine and Jessica Savitch, the late "golden girl" anchor of the 1970s whose personal life was so glamorously tragic that she became the subject of two posthumous feature films. He now trains amateurs and pros alike through his nonprofit consulting company, the Television News Center, headquartered in Rockville. "Good journalism sells the news," he says. "As this business gets more and more competitive, that's the thing that distinguishes one competitor from another." Povich takes up this line, too. "In order to make a connection with viewers, you have to be a good reporter," he says. "You know, you run into all these egos in this business, people who tell you, I want to grow up to be an anchor. I don't report.' Well, you don't succeed that way." I listen and nod, but all the while I'm thinking this sounds needlessly defensive. First, TV is a visual medium -- it demands attractive faces. Would Michelle Reed or Kristin Ludecke have a ghost of a chance if they were starting out at 50 instead of at 20 or 26? Would they if they were bald, fat men, or if they lisped or spoke with an accent? Of course Barbie and Ken would have a leg up on the competition for the big desk -- if they had the gravitas for the job. Such gravitas, clearly, is what's important about anchoring. Basic communications theory holds that the credibility of any information rises in proportion to the audience's regard for the person bearing it. On television, the audience gets to "meet" the bearers of the news -- the medium magnifies all the evidence by which the audience can judge. No wonder form is as important as content. What's remarkable is the extent to which this gravitas has been defined, articulated, codified. In TV news, credibility has been refined into a teachable commodity. That isn't to say that you, too, could be an anchor. All told, it's a hard package to get just right. Indeed, out of the 17 who have signed up for the class, only two clear stars emerge. One is Susan Carter, 31, an African American reporter and anchor for a cable-access news program in Montgomery County. Susan instantly takes over when she sits down to read. Like a good actor, she intuits her role in each story. In her hands, the Beltway shooting throbs with tension, and the tale of Precious comes off as almost a parable of human wickedness. She's even got something we haven't seen all day: facial expressions that synchronize perfectly with the story itself. She can convey concern, indignation, respect or whatever. She even has the right clothes; her ensemble is set off with a peach-colored jacket that seems too bold off screen but looks just right on TV. But the best of the bunch is Clarence Reynolds. Something odd, perhaps magical, happens to Clarence when he gets in front of the camera. He's a good-looking guy in person, but on the air he looks almost regal. And the voice that flows from him is not the one I recall from our earlier conversations. It is deeper, tonier, polished like a piece of rosewood. It makes even the phrase "a shooting on the Beltway" sound mellifluous. When the red light comes on, Clarence never looks back. Everything falls into place, with none of the strain we've witnessed all day. As he completes his first run-through -- "That's the news, I'm Clarence Reynolds in Washington" -- we hear something we haven't heard all day: silence. "Okay, do it again," says Maury, after a stunned pause. And Clarence does. Watching him zip flawlessly through his second run, Maury just stands back and lets it be. "Take a look at this, everybody!" he says like a proud father showing off his home-run-hitting son. But we barely hear what Maury is saying. As Clarence wraps up, we break into applause. For we all realize what has happened. We have just seen "meaning" in action. "Okay, let's see what the print guy can do!" Maury declares as the day nears its conclusion. I think I hear a trace of sadism in his voice. Walking to the anchor desk, I crack wise about providing everyone with some comic relief. But inside, I'm confident. I've been taking notes, noticing common errors, soaking up Maury's exhortations about "meaning." I'm the next-to-last one on, and the entire class has reassembled in the studio to watch. The control room takes a while to cue up the taped highlights I'll be introducing. It gives me a few extra moments to rehearse -- Beltway shooting . . . the police study thing . . . Precious . . . AIDS Day. I make a mental note to switch cameras when I start the Precious story, and again when I read the piece on World AIDS Day. Then Jenny Harrington does her hand jive and I'm on. "A shooting on the Beltway tops our news this morning," I intone, trying not to sound like Ted Baxter. I keep up with the TelePrompTer. My intro to the shooting tape ends a half-second before the tape rolls. Perfect! I am pushing my normal conversational tone a little, trying to invest the words with authority. To help things along, I throw in a few superficially sincere gestures: a nod for emphasis, a tilt of the head, a slightly arched eyebrow here and there. I consider, but reject, making an intentional mistake. I'm through the first two packages without a hitch, and bearing down on Precious. Here comes the camera switch. I drop my chin onto my tie, look down for a beat, then pivot and gaze into the second camera. "Good!" shouts Maury. I'm starting to relax as we head for home. I change my pace and intonation for the AIDS Day wrap-up, trying hard to convey at once respect, sympathy, all-knowing sadness. Taped images of French jets saluting people with AIDS roll under my voice-over. And then I'm back on camera. I wrap it up with a slight smile, nothing too smarmy or gleeful. "That's the news," I say. "I'm Paul Farhi in Washington." Rising from the anchor chair, I feel as if I'm lugging sandbags on my shoulders. Every muscle in my neck feels rigid. But as I walk out of the light, Maury Povich himself is standing there, suit jacket off, applauding me. I'm absolutely thrilled . . . . . . Until an hour later, when I view my demo tape. My performance leaves me dumbfounded. This cannot be me, I tell myself. I've done everything I was supposed to do, hit all the right spots, flubbed none of the words. And still, I'm a grinning robot, a stiff. All the words and the movements and the gestures are there, but they look like they were assembled with a trowel.
The news is inescapable: I'm not an anchorman; I just played one on TV. Paul Farhi is a reporter for The Post's Business section.