Musical Blondes

Rita Cosby is the latest trophy in the cable-news game of anchor-poaching.

One of the most puzzling recent hires in cable news has been MSNBC’s poaching of the anchor Rita Cosby from Fox News (where she hosted two shows, The Big Story Weekend Edition and Fox News Live With Rita Cosby). This month, Cosby began hosting a nightly news show, Rita Cosby Live & Direct, which airs at 9 p.m. ET weeknights; its premiere on Aug. 8 bumped The Situation With Tucker Carlson into the 11 p.m. slot formerly occupied by a Hardballrerun.

Lovely Rita

MSNBC’s anchor-napping of Cosby from Fox represents the third-place cable news network’s attempt at landing what Variety recently called“the new ratings-grabber”: “the crusading blonde on the crime-and-justice beat.” Back in 2001, CNN stole Paula Zahn from Fox, resulting in a breach-of-employment-contract suit that was later dismissed, and a years-long vendetta between Zahn and Fox chief Roger Ailes, who told the New York Times that he “could have put a dead raccoon” in Zahn’s time slot and gotten equally good ratings. In 2002, Greta von Susteren defected in the reverse direction, from CNN to Fox. Van Susteren’s ratings have soared during her three-year tenure at Fox, especially this summer, when her obsessive fixation on the search for Natalee Holloway, the missing teenager in Aruba, has made her one of the highest-rated (and most ridiculed) personalities on cable news. (Van Susteren continues to defend her nonstop coverage of the case in terms that, perhaps unintentionally, only serve to impeach her own competence as a reporter: “For me, it’s sort of an intellectual challenge.”) Another much-hyped instance of inter-network blonde-poaching occurred this spring, when CNN Headline News landed Court TV’s wild-eyed Cassandra of the justice system, Nancy Grace, for its prime-time 8 p.m. slot.

But the traffic in blondes seems to be acceding to an almost abstract plane with the acquisition of Rita Cosby by MSNBC. It’s as if the new rules of the cable-network publicity machine demand that flaxen-haired anchorwomen must be routinely seduced away from other networks (and the resulting defections hyped in the press), regardless of their virtual indistinguishability from one another or their highly dubious contributions to the field of journalism at large. How many people actually watched Rita Cosby in her weekend ghetto on Fox? And if she does have a following (as the existence of a Rita Cosby fan club would seem to indicate), can those viewers be depended on to migrate to a prime-time nightly show on the least-watched cable news network? (This question brings up a corollary that’s too sad to ponder for very long: What kind of person voluntarily spends their precious weeknight hours watching cable-news chat shows?)

Watching Live & Direct this week, it’s been hard to get a sense of what Rita was hired to bring to MSNBC. The aftermath of a devastating hurricane is not really a Rita Cosby kind of story; for one thing, there’s no one to blame for it. (I suppose you could rant bitterly against God, as if He were Robert Blake or Joran van der Sloot, but that might lose you a few viewers, especially from the Fox camp.) Cosby seems much more at home with stories like the disappearance of Olivia Newton-John’s boyfriend, Patrick McDermott (I loved her attempt last week to pump some juice about this case out of a visibly nonchalant private investigator, who suggested, “I would say two words: Las Vegas, OK? Look in Las Vegas. He’s probably hanging out there”), and of course, the Natalee Holloway story. This week, Cosby was supposed to be reporting live from Aruba, and she actually did broadcast the show from there, but God had thrown a wrench in MSNBC’s plans to steal some of the Natalee Holloway fire away from Fox: Hurricane Katrina. There was something bitterly amusing in watching Cosby try to justify her presence in Aruba (“As you know, I just arrived here in Aruba, which was not hit by the storm, but is dealing with the fury of the Natalee Holloway investigation”) before devoting the rest of the hour to long-distance coverage of the mega-disaster happening back in her own country.

MSNBC’s promotional arm has made much of Cosby’s status as an investigative journalist. The network’s Web site promises that “Rita Cosby: Live and Direct will be a hard-hitting, no-nonsense news program that brings viewers stories they won’t see anywhere else.” But if the network’s going to try to score points by bragging about Cosby’s three Emmys  for investigative reporting, or her historic “back-to-back interviews” with Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, they should be all the more ashamed to feature her in such a low-rent grab for ratings. So far, interviews have included Victoria Gotti’s former publicist (now there’s a “get”!) and Martha Stewart, who appeared with Mark Burnett to promote her two new shows, Martha and The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. Cosby served up a few creampuff questions (Q: “Is the best ahead?” A: “The best is yet to come.”) before musing about Stewart’s personal growth in prison: “Maybe she’s, you know, grown a bit.  I mean, this experience has got to change someone. But she seems very genuine, I thought.” 

The 40-year-old Cosby is not entirely without appeal. She has a raw, husky voice and the coarsely people-pleasing manner of someone selling rayon pantsuits on the Shopping Channel. She’s also a big woman, which is a nice change from the endless parade of female skeletons who man the newsdesks of cable TV. But if Cosby wants to be remembered as something more than the poor man’s Greta van Susteren, she should rise above the cable-news battle of the blondes—and get the hell out of Aruba.