An Anchor Pulls Back the Curtain on the Nightly News
The New York Times, May 26, 2002
by Samuel G. Freedman
Midway through the evening of Oct. 25, Aaron Brown began typing his commentary for that night's edition of CNN's "NewsNight." Six weeks had elapsed since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington thrust him into the anchorman's spot, broadcasting live from a rooftop with an unimpeded view of the Twin Towers. On this particular day, the homeland security director, Tom Ridge, had announced that the anthrax in a letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle was weapons-grade.
For Mr. Brown, that disclosure set off a chain of associations. Some of the anthrax letters, which had already infected seven people and killed three, had been sent to broadcast journalists. Now CNN had quarantined its mailroom. And meanwhile, Mr. Brown was trying to persuade relatives fearful of flying to attend his daughter's bat mitzvah, an effort at sustaining at least the semblance of normalcy. All his anxiety and uncertainty flowed through his keyboard and onto the 10 p.m. newscast.
"It occurred to me today that I just don't know," Mr. Brown said to nearly a million viewers. "Will someone I know get sick and maybe die? I don't know . . . I don't know if anthrax will be replaced by something else. I don't know if more buildings will be attacked. I don't know if the terrorists have some other plans, something worse. I don't know.
"I'm in the news business, and not being able to predict the day has always been one part of the joy. Not now. And I suspect I'm not the only one sick and tired and stressed out by it all, by all these 'I don't knows.' "
With that confession, as much as any moment in his tenure at CNN, Mr. Brown stamped his deeply individual approach on the role of anchorman. Network anchors have traditionally aspired to a kind of oracular certitude, epitomized by Walter Cronkite's nightly "And that's the way it is." But Mr. Brown emphasizes what is subjective, emotional, even personal. His nightly essays often draw back the curtain on the editorial process, sharing with the audience his decisions and defenses, and occasionally his misgivings, about what is being covered. He recounts his past, refers to his family, quotes from viewers' e-mail.
"If you're an omnipotent anchor, then mystery about the process is a good thing," said Mr. Brown, 53. "But if you're an accessible anchor, then it's not. I'm not afraid to show sausage being made. It helps people understand why sometimes we're very good and sometimes we're very bad. God is not my editor. I 'm a human being and I'm not afraid to say, 'I don't know," or 'If I had that story to do over again, I'd do it differently.' "
Such an intimate style, wavering between the incisive and the narcissistic, has brought Mr. Brown both influential admirers and caustic critics. Howard Rosenberg of The Los Angeles Times, for instance, called Mr. Brown "a fine, thoughtful anchor when not carrying chattiness to extremes and crashing like a computer." Outside Mr. Brown's office at CNN's New York bureau hang printouts of e-mails hailing NewsNight as "brilliant" and condemning it as "amateurish," extolling Mr. Brown as "informed, tenacious and sensitive" and castigating him as "pitiful and stupid."
The spirited debate about Mr. Brown comes amid an intense ratings war between CNN and Fox. While Fox led CNN in average daily viewers in April (684,000 to 555,000), Mr. Brown outdrew his Fox competitor, Greta Van Susteren's "On the Record," by 961,000 to 900,000. A year ago in the same time slot, "CNN Tonight" and "Spin Room" were averaging 489,000 viewers to 446,000 for "The View" with Paula Zahn on Fox. CNN finds itself attacked by media critics both for trailing its rival and for stooping to infotainment in trying to beat it.
Regardless of how the struggle ends, Mr. Brown has made his presence felt. "He's struck me as someone with a different style and mode than anyone else on the network news shows," said Alex S. Jones, the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "He has a plainness that at the same time is full of shrewd wisdom. He's a serious person doing a serious job, but I've always felt he has a life, and that's important."
Mr. Brown's manner, while controversial, does represent a strain within broadcast journalism. He counts Linda Ellerbee and Lloyd Dobyns, the iconoclastic anchors of "NBC News Overnight" in the 1980's, as major influences. A product of radio, Mr. Brown also brings to mind Susan Stamberg, who managed to be simultaneously informal and informational during her years as host of "All Things Considered." (Of course, the relatively small audience for any cable news show, compared to those of the three major networks, may be part of what allows Mr. Brown to stretch the form.)
Mr. Brown grew up in Hopkins, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, the inquisitive but underachieving middle child of a homemaker and a scrap-metal dealer. While Mr. Brown's four siblings graduated from college, he stumbled through high school with C's and D's, getting reprimanded for long hair and kicked out of the state capitol for making too much noise on a class trip. But he also wrote a column for the school newspaper and fell in love with radio listening to late-night broadcasts on WCCO.
During his two otherwise desultory quarters at the University of Minnesota, Mr. Brown was among a group of students invited to discuss civil rights on a talk-radio station, WLOL. The station manager, impressed by him and in need of a youthful host, hired Mr. Brown in 1968, when he was 18. Mr. Brown worked in radio for about seven years, doing everything from overnight talk shows to basketball play-by-play to a documentary on prisons to on-air obituaries. The experience in radio would define his television aesthetic.
"I learned that very few things in American life get resolved," he said. "The issues we were talking about then -- gun control, abortion, race -- are the things we're still talking about. And I learned it was exciting to be around the news. To be the one who is in the discussion." Radio also affected his manner: "It's much more intimate medium than TV. It's a listener's medium, at both ends. You see your audience as individuals in homes, instead of a large theater of people."
In Seattle in the mid-1970's, Mr. Brown moved into television, ultimately anchoring on ABC and NBC affiliates. There he developed a reputation as a gifted writer, a nimble conductor on election nights and a perfectionist of an editor, recalled John Procaccino, an actor and arts journalist who worked with Mr. Brown. (He also met a political reporter named Charlotte Raynor, who would become his wife.) In the early 1990's, word of Mr. Brown reached Amy Entelis, the senior vice president of talent recruitment at ABC News. Mr. Brown had spent his entire career in local markets, but she took the chance of hiring him to anchor ABC's "World News Now" when it started in early 1992. Broadcast at 2 a.m., the show itself was an experiment, she said, and Mr. Brown's "unique voice " fit.
Moving to ABC's marquee broadcast, "World News Tonight," in September 1993 came as a mixed blessing. Mr. Brown covered big events like the Hong Kong handover, South Africa's first democratic election and the O. J. Simpson trial and anchored the program every Saturday. Yet he strained to model himself on the ABC anchor Peter Jennings, a resolute and detached presence -- "cool" in television parlance to Mr. Brown's inherent "warm." "I tried to be that," he said, "and I wasn't any good at it."
It was also apparent that Mr. Jennings, though in his 60's, was nowhere near retirement. Nor were his contemporaries and competitors, Dan Rather at CBS and Tom Brokaw at NBC. No major network could accommodate Mr. Brown's fierce ambition to anchor a national broadcast, much less to do so in his idiosyncratic way. That is, until CNN hired him in the summer of 2001.
With the network's respected anchor Bernard Shaw retiring, Mr. Brown was to launch "NewsNight" on Oct. 15. Instead, he went on-air at 9:36 a.m. on Sept. 11, and for the next 10 hours orchestrated reports from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and multiple points abroad, adding his own captions to the ghastly images.
If those first hours instantly established Mr. Brown -- making his rimless glasses, flat hair and Midwestern twang familiar -- they also set a standard for the gravity of "NewsNight." Mr. Brown routinely rewrites scripts and inveterately researches the issues and individuals on the show, digesting a thousand pages of background, for instance, on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. He has brought other shadings to the show as well, whether remembering his high school girlfriends in an essay about George Harrison's death or eulogizing his daughter's fifth-grade teacher. But he has bluntly opposed a move back to broadcast journalism's staples of crime, celebrity and catastrophe, most notably in the case of the actor Robert Blake.
"NewsNight" lengthily covered Mr. Blake's arrest on April 18 for the murder of his wife. The next night, Mr. Brown opened the program by disparaging the earlier broadcast as "an entire meal of chocolate, all dessert." He went on: "Breaking news is like heroin to us. It feels good at first, but it's dangerous and addicting." The Blake broadcast had garnered his program's highest numbers in five months, since American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens. "So both sides of the camera have some decisions to make," Mr. Brown told his viewers. "We do and so do you."
While Mr. Brown's criticism might be expected to anger CNN executives, Walter Isaacson, the chairman and chief executive officer of the CNN News Group, has publicly supported him. "I found it very useful to have the discussion, both internally and in public," he said of the Blake commentary. More broadly, he said of Mr. Brown, "Every now and then we push him to punch things up a bit, but it's one of his charms that he sets a thoughtful tone."
One prominent media scholar suggests that acknowledging flaws may actually build trust with an audience. "Viewers worldwide no longer believe in the Walter Cronkite type of authority," said Siva Vaidyanathan, a profesor at the University of Wisconsin. "Network news has been exposed and sued and parodied in every way possible. What Aaron Brown is trying to do is combine the roles of anchor and ombudsman."
Mr. Brown, for his part, tends to measure the public pulse by e-mail as much as any other method -- it's the closest equivalent to the phone calls he took during his radio years. He sends a daily e-mail about the evening's show to more than 10,000 subscribers, and maintains steady correspondence with hundreds of viewers, often those who first wrote with complaints.
By giving the public some part of himself, he argues, he may not stand so far apart from the exemplar of an anchor. "One of the things I remember about Cronkite is that he cried," Mr. Brown recalled. "That he took off his glasses and wiped a tear when J.F.K. was shot. His awe at men walking on the moon. Or that moment when he came back from Vietnam and said, 'I have come to believe . . .' In some ways, he was omnipotent, the voice of Dad. But in other ways he was real and not afraid to be real. And in that tiny way, I feel like his descendant."