Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

Talking Point

Feeling left adrift after change of a news anchor

By Jerry Tallmer

Aaron Brown, above, and Anderson Cooper, below
I am not a television person. Except for baseball (Mets, Red Sox, hope-they-lose-but-don’t-bet-on-it Yankees, those Angels somewhere out there in California); football (Jets, if no Jets then the Giants); and of course the news. That’s about it.

Tried “Seinfeld” once. For 10 minutes. All I could stand. How obnoxious and nowhere can you get? Tried “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Well, I didn’t love him. Not even 10 minutes. Never could stand Letterman. Johnny Carson spoiled me.

Did used to love Archie and Edith and Meathead and Gloria, Mary Richards and Mr. Grant and the gang, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John and Radar O’Reilly and that gang, Ralph and Ed and Alice and Trixie and Felix and Oscar — but all of those are long ago and far away, in the days when television writers had some wit and brains.

Which leaves us with the news.

For some years, if home at 10 p.m., I would flip on WB Channel 11, having found the big boys, NBC, ABC and even CBS, which in its great years is where I grew up, too stiff, too stuffy, too omnipotent, too sterile. Fox, with its unbearable overbearing smugness? That was for the overheated ones, the true believers.

Which left Channel 11, one full hour of “News at 10.” Yes, you had to wade through the police blotter of every murder, every rape, every brutality, every missing person, every lost child, every scandal, every celebrity opening in town, but before the hour was through you would also get bits and pieces of the real news in this nation and the world, and what you would need to know about tomorrow’s weather, and an up-to-the-last-minute roundup of the day and evening’s sports results.

I mean, you might hate yourself in the morning for watching Channel 11 news, but there it was — fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, revolution, terrorist atrocity, war in, war out.

And then came September 11, 2001.

That night, surfing the dial, I stopped at CNN. And I do not know if it was that very night or one of the next few nights that I became aware that the person at the center of the whole coverage, the hub of the wheel — better yet, the fisherman casting his lines now this way, now that, to the streets, to the skies, to City Hall, to Washington, to London, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Jerusalem, to Beijing — was a man of unusual tact, taste, insight, balance, literacy and high intelligence. Unusual not just for TV, but certainly that too.

His name was Aaron Brown.

I came back the next night, and the next, and the next, and pretty soon I was hooked. CNN at 10, following Larry King, became a habit. And even when Aaron Brown’s voice and manner would on occasion get a little too painfully decent, too understanding — seen or heard another way, self-confident melting into bland — he still had the gift of digging for answers through the infernal complexities of something like the Terri Schiavo case with equal parts of civility and restless determination.

He asked the questions one’s self would have asked. And one was especially glad to have him in that anchor’s chair on Election Night 2004, and all the days that followed, and all the terrible nights and days of bombings (ours and theirs), and invasion, and “insurgents,” and beheadings, and Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamo Bays that have followed since.

One of the people to whom he addressed those questions was a daring young man on the flying trapeze whose emotions, unusual for TV, were close to the surface, whose garb was, even for the front lines, casual, whose impatience was preeminent, and his name was Anderson Cooper. If you cleaned him up and put him in a suit he would be quite pretty.

Then one fine day — no, one dark 10 p.m. — “CNN News Night” went on without Aaron Brown and with, in his anchor place, Anderson Cooper. Jon Klein, president of CNN/US had made the change, the switcheroo. He had fired Aaron Brown — well, he hadn’t exactly fired him, he’d just shifted him off the 10 p.m. spot and left him in outer space.

And now here was Anderson Cooper, all dolled up, suit, shirt, tie, the whole works, stiff as a doll, all fire extinguished. The fire he had jolted a nation with in his rage at the cowards and imbeciles whose inaction had turned New Orleans after Katrina into another and socially worse sort of 9/11 — all that was extinguished while Anderson Cooper in his stiff dark suit asked dumb stock questions of this one and that one that he would have flown off the handle at had the tables been turned.

Jon Klein, for whatever reasons — and everybody knows the reasons: ratings, money — had done the impossible, violated the first law of nature: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

So Aaron Brown is gone. And that other voice of intelligence, hairpiece and all, ABC’s Ted Koppel, is also gone. All this just as the ghost of Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” is warning the television industry, and all of us, what will happen — to TV, to our nation, to our brains — when you follow the least common denominator.

Forty-four years ago, as Newton Minow — appointed by John F. Kennedy — took office as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he gave his own warning of what he saw, not just in the future but then, when he looked upon American television: “a vast wasteland.”

So long, Aaron Brown. Howdy, Anderson Cooper. Welcome to the wasteland.

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