Today, they often act like clowns. Some pass along conspiracy theories on cable television, while others seem to enjoy broadcasting dangerously inaccurate medical information. A few waste time hectoring guests, performing outrage, or just emoting rather than reporting. In mimicking the worst of social media, many prefer reconfirming their audience’s biases to challenging viewers with the vital, and perhaps disagreeable, information they need.
Many of our current TV anchors have evolved into the cartoon characters lampooned by Hollywood since The Mary Tyler Moore Show first introduced us to Ted Baxter and Network warned us of the attraction—and danger—of madmen broadcasting from TV newsrooms.
But the power that fueled such portrayals in the 1970s no longer exists, as the relevance and cross-cultural respect accorded past network news anchors—a power derived from audiences concentrated by limited broadcast options—collapsed with the advent of multichannel media. Though Mad magazine (and others) spoofed Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley in the 1960s, network TV anchormen occupied a hallowed space in the American psyche while playing a distinctly more salubrious role in American society. This legacy of critical independence might have looked liked a nostalgic cliché by the time of George Clooney’s 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck, in part because it really had been so potent in its time.
By 2005, however, the idea of the heroic network TV anchor speaking truth to power had largely disappeared. In hindsight, the last cultural moment of the nightly news broadcast’s social authority occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of that terroristic attack, we experienced the last turn of the classic anchorman.
On that day, and in the ensuing days of confusion, network anchors like Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw assembled coherence from fragmentary information while contextualizing a tragedy of almost unimaginable scale. They did this live, in front of a camera, while juggling their own personal responsibilities with their national informational obligations. “I almost lost it a couple of times on 9/11,” Peter Jennings once told an interviewer. “Most specifically, when I turned around to find that my children had called from two parts of the country. I think it made me think of a lot of families, and their children.” The emotional pain evidenced in this clip spoke not only for Jennings, but for millions of anxious American parents separated from their children and glued to their TV sets. Throughout the day, the anchors addressed viewers clearly and directly, employing the sort of crisp, declarative sentences that unambiguously signal history’s occurrence. “Sept. 11, 2001. You will remember this day as long as you live” were the words Dan Rather used to open the CBS Evening News at 6:30 p.m. that night.
Such professionalism—as evidenced by a practiced combination of gravity and authority, and attempts at remaining candid, honest, and transparent with the audience—may have been a touch paternalistic, but it was effective. The networks reattracted the viewers who flocked back to the news channels they grew up on. The informational power that had by 2001 started to crumble—amid competition from cable news and the early ripples of online journalism and social media—was, for a few days, restored. The vacuous inanity that infected so much TV news throughout America’s “tabloid decade,” the 1990s, evaporated instantly.
Americans, on 9/11, turned to their trusted anchors for more than journalism. “When there is a crisis in the American family, our roles become … almost ministerial in a sense that we are healers,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw told an audience in 2002. “We are looked to for information, but also for empathy and reassurance.” Soon, the nation’s anchormen started steering the nation back on course. They played a restorative role, and across the television landscape they signaled appropriate modes of behavior to a nation grasping for how to react. Dan Rather memorably visited The Late Show, to both encourage his colleague David Letterman and to demonstrate the acceptability of an emotional response to a national trauma.
Rather’s brief show of emotion on The Late Show revealed the enormous strain under which journalists were working, and the hidden humanity of the people delivering our news. Peter Jennings, who anchored the nation’s top-rated newscast on ABC, later admitted that all the anxiety and tension of those days caused him to self-medicate by resuming the smoking habit he’d overcome in the 1980s. He would die of cancer just four years later, at the age of 67.
Over the decade following 9/11, despite recurring crises—including a war with Iraq and the economic collapse in 2008–09—the role of the anchorman on television, and in society, would diminish considerably. Numerous reasons exist for the decline; primarily, many viewers began tuning in to more politically reliable cable newscasts that catered to their partisan biases more effectively than traditional network newscasts did. But the networks also hold some responsibility for the format’s decline. It’s easy to forget the numerous embarrassing moments occurring in the aftermath of 9/11 that damaged the credibility of even the nation’s most respected news outlets. The networks inaccurately smeared the wrong suspect in the anthrax attacks, and, they credulously relayed some of the Bush administration’s more questionable claims in the run-up to the war with Iraq. Rather’s career anchoring the CBS Evening News ended when his credibility couldn’t recover from a report based, in part, upon unverified (and likely fictitious) memos about President George W. Bush’s military service.
Some have argued that the power accrued by network anchors between 1960 and 2000 was never a healthy development for our society. In establishing credibility with millions of citizens, these celebrity journalists yielded enormous political influence despite claiming neutral (or “objective”) political identities. Beginning with Spiro Agnew, politicians took aim at these “unelected” leaders, with the apex of conflict erupting in 1988. That year, Vice President George H.W. Bush exploited a live TV interview to insult Dan Rather in response to a critical line of questioning. Other politicians learned from Bush’s success, and periodic, calculated-seeming displays of anger became a base-flattering political tactic. Examples include when former President Bill Clinton went after Fox News’ Chris Wallace in 2006, and when Donald Trump theatrically walked out of an interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes last year (and then immediately released video of the moment). In these cases, partisans applauded the pushback by their heroes. Such ruptures revealed the ever-present simmering conflict between TV news and political power. They also made clear that the era when a program like Ted Koppel’s Nightline could leverage its audience influence to constrain an administration’s options in handling a calamity (like the Iran hostage crisis) was over.
When history erupts as breaking news today, it’s distributed through microchannels and information silos. Tragic and confusing news events that used to unify the nation in search of credible and widely accepted answers are now first filtered through tribal loyalty. The sheer number of Americans refusing to accept solutions that promise to significantly alleviate the COVID-19 pandemic proves just how far we’ve moved from even the concept of universal information. Though nightly broadcast network newscasts remain popular—at times this past summer, ABC World News Tonight was the most-watched show of any kind on U.S. television, beating America’s Got Talent and other prime-time programs—David Muir receives far less attention than a typical Fox News host, despite generating vastly larger audiences. And the role Muir plays in contemporary American society isn’t comparable with the one that Chet Huntley, Peter Jennings, and Walter Cronkite once enjoyed. When each of us curates our own personal news feed, with many of us rejecting unwelcome information even if credible and verified, we all conspire in the national splintering. Ultimately, it looks like all the informational freedom we’ve gained in our more decentralized news environment has ironically empowered widespread ignorance.
My father was a TV newsman who worked at CBS News from the 1950s through the 1980s. He began on the CBS Evening News when it was a 15-minute black-and-white headline service showing dated film clips, and he finished his broadcast journalism career in the age of instantaneous global satellite relay. He had a simple theory for why network TV news accrued so much power in the 1960s and 1970s. “When all hell breaks loose,” he used to say, “you want your news straight from the mountaintop.” From November 1963, when the president was assassinated in Dallas, through the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans grew accustomed to receiving credible and accurate information delivered humanely, with empathy, coherence, and reassurance. For all the dazzling technological magic of our current information environment, we’ve never been able to replicate, or replace, the classic network anchorman’s journalistic—or ministerial—roles.
In retrospect, the disappearance of the classic anchorman after 9/11 is an issue larger than journalism itself. It speaks to the vital question of whether anybody—elected or not—will ever be able to play such an essential role in sustaining a shared and accepted informational identity for our national community. The next time all hell breaks loose, perhaps we’ll find out.