For all of us who grew up with the evening news anchors ‘in’ our living rooms and family rooms, five nights a week, it’s fair to say that we saw more of the anchors than we saw of most of our neighbors, and even some of our close friends and relatives. It’s also fair to say that most of parents placed more trust in the evening news anchormen and women than they placed in politicians, astrologers, generals, newspaper columnists, mystics, religious leaders, and other types of public personalities that had held the faith of earlier generations of Americans.
These men and women were appointed to the job of anchoring a news program, but in terms of our relationship with them, especially in the years between 1960 and 1980, they were anchoring America, too. Successful anchors were invariably major public personalities, were sought after for public positions from the FCC to the US Senate, and the most successful anchor of all time, Walter Cronkite, was routinely voted ‘the most trusted man in America’ in a survey of the American public, holding the ‘title’ even after he left the anchor desk for semi-retirement.
The anchors have been admired, reviled, criticized, threatenend, lauded, hated, loved and emulated by different sections of the public, but they have never been ignored. They have been the subject of countless books and articles—sometimes as the sole focus, sometimes as a group—but they have never been surveyed, as a whole, not only in their impact on the news ‘landscape’ but for their impact on ‘us’, the public.
It was that simple thought—to examine our relationship with the anchors, and the concept of anchoring, in a series of profiles of the anchors over the years—that led to this book. We set out to examine who they were, and why we watched them. How the news affected them, how they affected the news, and how they affected us as we took in the events of the day they were relating.
The first and most difficult task was to define exactly what we meant by ‘an anchor’. The term itself dates to the 1950s but has come not only to stand for a device—a person serving as focal point of a news program—but for a singular personality who serves as the focal point for an entire network news operation. That person embodied the culture of the network, and came (in a few cases) to be held in the highest esteem by the public as a whole, a fixture of the evening television experience, a subject of endless debate among viewers as to ‘who’s the best?’, and in many cases thought of as a keeper of the public trust.
In the broadest sense, almost every news broadcast has an anchor—someone who can be anything from a simple presenter (whose job is to read the words on the Teleprompter in a convincing fashion), or a formidable journalist combining the roles of reporter, commentator and presenter. But for most people, ‘the’ anchors are the men and women who have for lengthy periods have sat at the anchor desk on the network evening news.
When we defined the anchors to be profiled in this book, we selected seventeen men and women, from Edward R. Murrow through to Connie Chung. There was no hard and fast rule that led us to include Murrow, who never anchored a network evening news, but not Rod Cochran, who anchored the fifteen minute ABC evening news in the early 1960s. It seemed to us that in many ways, Murrow exemplified and established the anchoring tradition—although he did so in radio.
Tom Wolfe, in his book The Right Stuff—focused on the story of the astronauts of the Mercury program—began with a profile of Charles Yeager, the ‘dean’ of the test pilots, who personified what it meant to be a test pilot, to have ‘the right stuff’. Though Yeager never went into space, his profile is essential to the story of the space program—especially when it comes to articulating the triumph of those who saw that—to popularize the space program—astronauts had to be thought of as heroes rather than simply as passengers perched on top of a rocket.
Murrow, in his own way, is the Chuck Yeager of this book. The ‘right stuff’ he exemplified—his commitment to truth, candor, authentic reporting, and the public trust—eventually became of the culture of the network evening news in the United States. Several of the early anchors were hired or served under him, later anchors would continue to be ardent admirers of his uncompromising news standards. Although he never served as a network anchor, it is impossible to understand the culture of the news, and the news culture of CBS in particular, without a profile of his astonishing career.
From Murrow we immediately moved to include the three original anchors at the major networks—Douglas Edwards, John Daly and John Cameron Swayze, each a great story in its own right, and one that lends itself to a clear understanding of the early days of the news. None of these three had anywhere near the stature of a Murrow, and there were other correspondents that were more highly regarded during their collective heydey in the 1950s. The three were hired not only because of their talents, but because more highly regarded journalists were hostile to the new medium. Nevertheless, it fell to these three to establish the format and style of the news, and to wade through a thicket of logistical and technical questions including remote coverage, live coast-to-coast feeds, the Teleprompter, lighting and set decoration. They showed up at the absolute beginning of television news when there were no established practices at all, and by the time the last of them left (Edwards in 1962) the news had a recognizably modern shape.
The next generation of anchors included Walter Cronkite at CBS and the team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC. They were perhaps the pre-eminent anchors of all time—combining widespread popularity, consistent ratings, critical acclaim and immense public trust that grew through the years of the Vietnam War. They also provided the classic form of the 30-minute broadcast (introduced during their time) with its combination of commentary and reporting from a distinguished set of national and international correspondents.
A succession of short-lived anchors at ABC between 1961 and 1969 were not included in the book because they lacked ratings and longevity, the exceptions being Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings who later achieved great distinction in their respective second tours at the ABC anchor desk beginning in 1978.
With the end of the 1960s, a new seriousness at ABC and (in 1971) the retirement of Chet Huntley from NBC sparked a new focus on anchoring formats. ABC tried a number of experiments in the 1970s, finding some success with a two-anchor format of Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, and introducing a number of firsts with Barbara Walters, and later a three-anchor format including Max Robinson, Jennings, and Reynolds. Lontime NBC veteran John Chancellor helmed a distinguished program at NBC (teamed for a time with David Brinkley), while Cronkite continued to rule the ratings war from his desk at CBS.
In the 1970s the news product began to be strongly influenced not only by the newsmen, but by a pair of visionary producers, Don Hewitt and Roone Arledge. Arledge’s moves at ABC not only reshaped the ABC network news programming, but he put a new emphasis on anchors as marketable ‘stars’ and made overtures to Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather that were instrumental in persuading NBC and CBS, respectively, to name the two as anchors of their own broadcasts. Hewitt, a former CBS Evening News producer, established the first highly successful, long-running news magazine ‘hit’ in 60 Minutes. His own own correspondents (including Reasoner and Rather) became ‘stars’ in their own right on the first program to rival the network evening news for ratings and prestige.
With the 1980s came the current trio of Jennings, Rather and Brokaw. It was a close decision to include Connie Chung for her 2 year stint as CBS co-anchor in the 1990s but not include Roger Mudd for his co-anchor role with Brokaw in 1982-83. In the end, Chung was chosen not only for her anchoring service, but the unique example she represents today as a ‘star’ journalist ‘anchoring’ a non-evening news program on CNN.
Also with the 1980s came the rise of CNN, the first of six 24-hour cable news networks that have contributed to a complete re-alignment of the network evening news. We included a chapter not only on CNN, but on the McNeil Lehrer NewsHour which provided, along with CNN, the alternative to the networks throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
After the departure of Connie Chung in 1995, there have been no new anchors. Yet the proliferation of news magazine programs, 24-hour cable news networks and the challenge of the Internet has given the network evening news its greatest ratings challenge since the 1940s. Consequently, we made the decision to profile the changes since 1995 is a single, focused chapter that examines the changes not only at the networks, but in our culture.
Putting the story together, we realized that there was an overlying theme to the book, which is the decline in the importance of the Murrow tradition and the classic network news anchor. We believe that there is no better way to demonstrate these changes than by contrasting the coverage of Pearl Harbor—when the country was thirsting for a national news leadership—versus the coverage of 9/11/2001, when there seemed to be such comprehensive coverage from local and cable news that network evening news looked much like an anachronism. We decided to include a detailed chapter on each, showing what we as the public experienced in terms of information gathering.
In between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are portraits of our greatest anchors and some of our weakest, designed to answer the question ‘why did we like them?’ as well as ‘what were they like?” With a focus on them, yet a close eye on us, we present them in this book as a memory of times past, as well as to look at their successes and failures for indications of how we will watch our news in the coming years and generation.