King George

The role of Stephanopoulos in our constitutional system.

Stephanopoulos: Will we wonder what he’s thinking?

This is a jittery moment in our country. We await al-Qaida’s next move, while the War on Terrorism has melted into a game of shuffle-the-boxes on the government organization chart. Every politician in America has been on television warning Saddam Hussein that he’s got just a few months to use those weapons of mass destruction we’re darned sure he’s got. The stock market and the economy are torturing us with their indecision. And, look, is there global warming or what?

But America is blessed. We have an institution designed to provide a soothing balm of continuity in turbulent times like these. It functions the way the British royal family is supposed to: as a human symbol of the nation. As a sump for adoration that might otherwise be misdirected at political leaders and go dangerously to their heads. As a front of national unity behind which politicians at all levels can bicker and carp.

This institution is, of course, the Television News Anchorhood, of which there are two sorts. Each has its own vital role in our constitutional system. First, there is the Evening News Anchor. This person’s burden is to reassure us, by describing all developments in a similar tone for the same block of time every night, that all news is equally important—and therefore not very. Half an hour of Dan Rather’s bug-eyed alarm or an hour of Jim Lehrer’s wry twinkle: It hardly matters. Consistency is what counts.

Second, there is the Sunday Talk Show Anchor. These Sunday shows have evolved into crucial rituals of democracy in which elected and appointed officials expose themselves publicly to whatever form of humiliation the anchor and a couple of colleagues may devise. (Verbal humiliation only, so far—although CBS is said to be working on an interesting variant.) The Sunday Anchor must embody all the nation’s conflicting feelings about those who exercise power over us. Contempt, deference, and bonhomie must all be on display simultaneously. NBC Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert’s gift for saying, in effect, “With all due respect, Senator, you’re a lying bastard. Bowling next Tuesday?”—and not any physical resemblance, which is slight at best—is why so many Americans compare his role in our national life to that of Britain’s late queen mother.

But just when we need calm and continuity the most, all is chaos in Anchordom. The last of the classic authority-figure baritones in the tradition of Walter Cronkite, Bernard Shaw of CNN, is already gone. NBC’s Tom Brokaw has given us two years to prepare for the shock of his retirement and ascension of Brian Williams, who is regarded as utterly different in ways that may not be apparent to the naked eye. Rather of CBS and Peter Jennings of ABC are also starting to get the “Are you still here?” media treatment.

Most traumatic of all for a nation on edge, the David Brinkley chair at ABC’s This Week is being entrusted to George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton administration Wunderkind. All of our fears about the future are currently being sublimated into one nervous question: Can a former partisan political operative rise above politics to perform this crucial monarchial function?

I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Even the sainted Russert was a Democratic Party apparatchik in his salad days, yet his ideology these days seems to be precisely the vague, sentimental, nonpartisan high-mindedness appropriate to his station. How does this happen?

First, keep in mind that news anchors, like other constitutional monarchs, are primarily figureheads. TV news is an odd business in which one group of people—the on-air  “talent”—gets all the appearance and deference and money and perks of being in charge, while another group—the producers—have most of the burden and power of being in charge. America’s evening news anchors, unlike the British royals, are capable of intelligent thought, and often prove as much, but their core function of reading a TelePrompTer requires little of it. The Sunday-morning anchors, who ask questions and lead discussions, have more autonomy but less than they appear to have. Especially at first. Stephanopoulos’ opportunity to turn This Week into Democratic Party propaganda is more limited than it seems.

Second, there is no reason to suppose that Stephanopoulos would sacrifice his commercial interests to his partisan interests. Like everyone else on earth, he wants to be a TV star. And now he has an opportunity to be one. Nothing in his past suggests that he would risk squandering this opportunity in order to advance the agenda of the Democratic Party, even if—unlike everyone else on earth—he knows what that agenda might be.

Third, it would not be so terrible if Stephanopoulos and This Week were overtly biased, or the other TV news anchorhoods as well. The TV news anchor I find myself watching most is Brit Hume of Fox News. He brims with bias, and it’s a bias I don’t share. But his freedom to be biased is also freedom to be intelligent. You get the news as filtered through an interesting mind.

Fox News is a brilliant experiment in overt, honest bias—the broadcast equivalent of its owner Rupert Murdoch’s flagship right-wing tabloid newspaper, the New York Post. It has stripped a whole layer of artifice from TV news. What almost ruins everything is the network’s comically dishonest insistence that it is not what it obviously is. I would love to know what Hume is thinking when he repeats with apparent sincerity the Fox News mantra, “Fair and balanced as always.” Fox is usually fair but rarely balanced. In fact it is a good example of how you can be the one without the other.

It’s a compliment to Fox, though, that a viewer wonders what its anchor is thinking, rather than whether he is thinking. There is a lesson here for George Stephanopoulos. Or at least for his producers.