FOR A MAN who’s supposed to be the future of network television news, Brian Williams looks an awful lot like the past.
Just 43 when it was announced that he would anchor the NBC Nightly News starting in 2004, Williams in some respects seems older than Tom Brokaw, whom he’ll succeed. At 62, Brokaw is the youngest of the Big Three (CBS’s Dan Rather is 70; ABC’s Peter Jennings is 63). And Brokaw’s folksy-yet-serious, everyman persona still seems modern compared to the stern omniscience of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and John Chancellor in the 1960s and ’70s — or, for that matter, of Ted Koppel today.
But though the Cronkites and the Koppels have always been able to trade on their experience and credibility, Williams — who anchors The News with Brian Williams on MSNBC at 8 p.m. — often comes off as stiff and portentous. He is said to be intelligent and funny, and he probably is. On camera, though, the expensive dark suit, the cuff links, the perfect tan, the just-so head angle designed to show off his "good" side (does he in fact have a left ear?), and the grave, hectoring tone can border on the ridiculous, especially on a slow news day.
Williams’s ascendancy comes at a time when the network newscasts are under fire as never before. With a combined audience of about 30 million viewers per evening, the three half-hour programs remain the closest thing we have to a mass news medium. Yet audience share has fallen from 75 percent in 1970 to about 44 percent today — and most of the remaining viewers are so old that, as Frank Rich put it in a piece on the Rather/Jennings/Brokaw triumvirate for the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, the advertisements "amount to a grim tour of a medicine cabinet largely for the aging, the infirm, the impotent and the incontinent."
In such a context, NBC’s decision to name Brian Williams the designated anchor seems conservative and hidebound. At a time when the networks ought to be thinking seriously about how to reinvigorate their fading news franchise, NBC is sending us someone straight out of Anchor Central — an old-fashioned news reader who lacks Brokaw’s nimbleness, Jennings’s on-camera intelligence, and Rathers’s arresting just-plain-weirdness. This isn’t a move to build audience and strike out in new directions — it’s a move to hold on to what’s already there, or at least to lose it as slowly as possible until, inevitably, the network newscasts fade to extinction.
Yet a rough draft of what the network newscast of the future might look like — and how it might even succeed and grow and shuck off its financial dependence on Depends — is already on the air every weeknight at 10. CNN’s NewsNight, anchored by Aaron Brown, is not perfect by any means, and much of the reason has to do with Brown himself, who alternates between refreshing candor and annoying self-absorption. But NewsNight, which debuted on October 15 (Brown himself began work at CNN on September 11, less than an hour after the first tower was hit), works as an invigorating alternative to the traditional newscast, with longer stories, some attitude and edge, and the arch presence of Brown, who, despite being 10 years older than Williams, comes across as an entire generation younger.
Not to wax too enthusiastic. NewsNight has been devoting a lot of time to the trial involving the murder of young Danielle van Dam, mainly because the lawyer for the neighbor accused of killing her is making an issue of the exotic and varied sex life indulged in by Danielle’s parents. And Brown gave an entire hour to the arrest of Robert Blake — something that he apologized for the next night. At its best, though, the show comes across as a less-boring version of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer or the television equivalent of All Things Considered.
That's not something you can say about any other network newscast, either on broadcast or cable. And it's having some success: in April NewsNight actually beat the Fox News Channel's On the Record, hosted by Greta Van Susteren, before sliding back to second place in May. (The third cable news show competing in that time slot, MSNBC's Alan Keyes Is Making Sense, is a non-factor in the ratings. Which, if you've seen it, makes sense.)
IT’S NOT THAT Brian Williams isn’t a pretty good anchor — he is. And his seriousness is nothing to sneer at in an era when it’s getting increasingly difficult — especially on cable — to tell the difference between news programming and the World Wrestling Federation. (Which, by the way, recently changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment, or, in its promos, simply "WW." I fully expect that in 10 years it will simply be called "W," with a certain former president taking the place of Vince McMahon.)
But — and this is unfair, but so what? — the full Williams package adds up not so much to gravitas as to the appearance of gravitas. As Newsday media columnist Marvin Kitman recently wrote of Williams, "He is a nice, clean-cut, very sincere trying-to-be-a-journalist type person." And that’s because, well-intentioned and hard-working though he may be, Williams — unlike the current Big Three anchors — never really aspired to be anything but an anchor. Yes, he worked for a time as a White House correspondent, but by his own admission he’s wanted to be an anchorman since he was six years old. "I am a 43-year-old anachronism," he was recently quoted as saying in the New York Times. "I am the kid in front of the TV set wondering about what it was like to anchor the evening news."
Now, maybe there’s nothing actually wrong with lusting for the anchor desk. But the mythology of television news has it that our anchors are supposed to have been globetrotting correspondents who were pulled in from the field and practically forced to sit behind a desk. The model is Edward R. Murrow, who reported on the bombing of London while standing on the rooftops of that city (granted that Murrow, who reached his zenith in television in the 1950s, was never really an anchorman in the modern sense). Walter Cronkite was a hard-bitten United Press reporter before he went into television. Dan Rather stood up to Richard Nixon. Peter Jennings washed out when ABC tried to make him a twentysomething Ken-doll anchor, then rebuilt his career by spending years in the trenches.
No, there’s probably no need for any of this dues-paying. What, after all, is wrong with simply being a competent news reader? But any network that dares defy this mythology risks a backlash. As though anticipating such a development, NBC has announced that Williams will get some much-needed seasoning during the next two years. But reassurance like this only calls attention to the problem.
There’s something of a Max Headroom quality to Williams — you know he’s got legs and feet, but somehow he just looks wrong when he’s not seated in his comfortable anchor perch. The week after his anointment, he was dispatched to India to report on that country’s nuclear standoff with Pakistan. On the MSNBC newscast one night, he walked through a busy outdoor market in New Delhi with an Indian nuclear scientist, dressed semi-casually with sunglasses, and mouthed banalities. Noting that tensions between the two countries had eased, Williams asked, "Was it fear of the worst that did the trick?" Moments later he observed: "God forbid if the worst should happen, the death toll here would be staggering." Yes, and that’s the news from here. Only time will tell. Back to you.
In Williams’s defense, his dispatch — like nearly all reports on MSNBC — was so short that, even if he were so inclined, it would have been nearly impossible to offer any more than the broadest, most obvious strokes. Williams will get a chance to do better work starting on July 15, when MSNBC completes its death plunge into oblivion with an all-talk format (Phil Donahue! Two hours a day with Pat Buchanan and Bill Press!) and Williams moves to sister station CNBC.
The reconfigured Williams program is supposed to feature more interviews and longer segments than his current newscast, and will put him head-to-head at 10 p.m. with Greta Van Susteren and, yes, Aaron Brown. (The News is already rebroadcast on CNBC at 10, but that’s hardly a true test of Williams’s appeal.)
Williams may find that he’s got some catching up to do.