THE FIRST annoying thing about Aaron Brown is the way he greets his viewers. A typical example as he takes the handoff from Larry King: "Thank you, Mr. King, and hello again, everyone." The operative word is again, which he uses every night. NewsNight appears at 10 p.m. Period. Yet Brown makes it sound like youíve missed something ó like the whole world was watching earlier, but you missed it, and only now are you getting around to tuning in. You idiot. This impression is immediately reinforced by his launching into his nightly commentary, which carries the label "Page Two." Page Two? What the hell happened to Page One? Then thereís "Page Two and a Half" ó a rundown of whatís coming up during the hour. Argh!
Such quirks aside, though, it doesnít take long to realize that NewsNight is a pretty high-quality show. For one thing, there is "The Whip" ó the round-up of CNN reporters from around the world who preview what theyíll be reporting later in the newscast. It canít be an accident that this feature has become a staple, because when you can promote the likes of Christiane Amanpour from the Middle East and John King from the White House, youíve got a journalistic advantage over the competition.
For another thing, there is Brown himself. Brown took the place of Bernard Shaw, a solid, stolid, old-fashioned anchor who retired last year. Shaw was a link to CNNís glorious past, when Roger Ailes wasnít eating its lunch and AOL Time Warner wasnít screwing things up. Yet Brownís got an off-kilter, postmodern thing going that the straight-arrow Shaw never could have mastered. Itís not that Brown isnít serious ó heís quite serious, as much so as Brian Williams. But whereas Williams functions as the generic anchor, NewsNight is built around Brown, who freely mixes news-reading and commentary; who exudes friendliness and solicitude, yet sometimes seems to be controlling a barely suppressed rage (or disgust) at the world; and who, at times, seems capable of blurting out just about anything, as he did when he compared territorial turf wars between the FBI and the CIA to in-house sniping between CNNís morning and evening crews.
The testy Brown was on display one recent night when Jonathan Karl delivered a long report on that dayís congressional hearings regarding intelligence failures preceding September 11. Toward the end, Karl revealed that a high-ranking FBI official had been transferred out of counterterrorism, possibly as punishment for his ineptitude. Said a somewhat incredulous Brown: "I donít want to suggest that we are quite burying the lead, but that is a tantalizing little piece of information." To borrow what someone once said about Gary Condit, Is that a smile, Aaron, or are you showing your teeth?
Later, Brown got a little too cute for my taste when he asked Bishop George Niederauer about the new sex-abuse guidelines drafted by the US bishops in Dallas. "Does Rome ó and Iím not always sure what I mean when I say that, to be perfectly honest ó does Rome have to sign off on this?" asked Brown. Oh, come now. Yes, itís fine to acknowledge that the Vatican hierarchy can be rather bewildering, especially for a non-Catholic (as Brown is always quick to point out about himself). But are such circumlocutions really necessary when asking a bishop if the pope has veto power?
But Brown does ask smart questions, such as when he put Senator Evan Bayh on the spot about those secret intelligence hearings, wondering how the American people could benefit if they were taking place behind closed doors. (Bayhís answer amounted to mush from the wimp, but that wasnít Brownís fault.) Brown appears to be at ease with pop culture, too, or at least some elements of it. He introduced a segment on Bono and Treasury Secretary Paul OíNeillís tour of Africa with a reference to Rattle and Hum, and he closed an interview with writer Sebastian Jungerís new Vanity Fair piece on sexual slavery in Kosovo by saying of the magazine, "Thereís a lot of really cool stuff in it."
What impressed me the most, though, was the way Brown handled an interview segment on violence in the Middle East. It was a day when a suicide bomber had killed 17 Israelis, and Israel had moved its military back into Yasser Arafatís base in Ramallah. On cable it has become de rigueur that you bring in two (or three or four) people to shout at each other. Brown, though, brought them in one at a time ó Israeli consulate official Ido Aharoni followed by PLO representative Hassan Abdel Rahman ó so he could calmly ask a few questions of each. Now, I donít know ó maybe he had to do this because Aharoni and Rahman refuse to appear together. But MSNBC, Fox, or even other CNN shows simply would have settled for second- or third-rate guests so they could put them on and let them yell at each other.
Brownís not averse to conflict ó he later hosted a virtual shoutfest in which Newsweek religion writer Ken Woodward openly sneered at officials of sex-abuse-victims groups. But his attempt to go for light rather than heat on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was most uncable-like ó and most welcome.
AS WITH Brian Williams, Aaron Brown lacks the deep reporting background of an earlier generation of anchors. According to a recent New York Times profile, Brown spent his formative years in radio, hosting talk shows, doing basketball play-by-play, and making a documentary on prisons.
But Brown has logged a lot of time behind the anchor desk, including a 2 a.m. newscast on ABC in the 1990s. He later worked as a reporter on ABCís evening newscast, World News Tonight, covering such stories as the election of Nelson Mandela and the trial of O.J. Simpson, which may or may not give him more reporting experience than Williams. Regardless, Brown seems utterly confident on camera. Whereas Williams is scripted to a fault, Brown gives the illusion ó at least I assume itís an illusion ó of making it up as he does along, right down to trying to decide whether to go to a commercial break.
Williams may well give NBC executives what they think they need at 6:30 p.m. ó a solid news reader and a stable presence who can hold on to the networkís share of aging viewers. What Brown has done, though, is to point the way to something else.
For some time now, observers who are worried about the future of network news have suggested that at least one of the networks ought to try a 60- or even 90-minute newscast in prime time, combining hard news with the best of magazine shows such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, and Dateline. Last year, in an interview with The NewsHourís Terence Smith, both Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw identified 10 p.m. as the ideal time slot for such a newscast. Earlier this year the idea got further impetus when it was endorsed by the Washington Postís Len Downie and Robert Kaiser in their book The News About the News (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, January 23).
NewsNight may be what such a program would look like: solid and serious, but at the same time quirky and irreverent enough to hold the interest of younger viewers more accustomed to getting their news from Jon Stewart, David Letterman, and Jay Leno than from Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings.
In his piece on the Big Three, Frank Rich paid them a backhanded compliment, writing that itís "a comfort to know that a complicated world can be distilled into a compact and reliable daily report that, for the most part, goes down as easily as the prescription pills that are hawked in between segments.... The evening news, in a triumph of form over content, restores order in a discrete half-hour."
Trouble is, no one under 55 thinks the world works that way, or trusts a newscast that tells them it does. Brian Williams may one day figure that out. Aaron Brown ó whether you find him refreshing, annoying, or (most likely) both ó already has.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com