Couric, Cooper & Co
The End of the World News
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, September 15, 2006
A confession. Twenty-five years ago, when I was an erectile-driven teen and she was a reporter at WCBS-TV in New York, I was in love with Meredith Vieira. My father was an assignment editor at the station, a massive block of a building on West 57 th Street that once was supposedly a pig farm. So I could freely stalk Meredith in the newsroom, catch the breeze of her auburn hair or lie in wait to glimpse her too-often hosed ankles as she made passes by my father’s desk. She never did throw me more than the casually required smiles TV talents throw as decoys at the parasites around them. But she was my 11 o’clock news all right — my personal solo anchor — once I could detach her in my mind’s eye from her Channel 2 surroundings, which included at the time such dysfunction-inducing gags as John Tesh and John Stossel (and now include a demi-Lebanese ex, back when we were both starting our careers in West Virginia, who even at her Mediterranean best couldn’t quite manage the lust-in-my-heart inspirationals of a Vieira snub). But my romance for Vieira couldn’t outlast those early 80s. TV was fast adopting the model of news as dope of the dumb, by the dumb and for the dumb, with great success: Ronald Reagan had just been elected, and CBS was warming up Walter Cronkite’s chair with Dan Rather’s rear, a natural devolution down Couric’s way.
It was also the time when news executives were demoting women anchors for being “too old, unattractive and not deferential enough to men,” as Ridge Shannon, news director at Kansas City’s KMBC, famously said of Christine Craft. (Craft sued for sex discrimination, was awarded $500,000 by one jury, $325,000 by another in a re-trial, then lost it all on appeal. She’s now a liberal radio talk show host at Sacramento’s KSCA). Betty Rollins, the one-time correspondent for Nightline (back when that was a news program worth the name) summed up the emerging parody in “Anchors Are in Show Business,” an August 1983 OpEd in the Times: “Any station dumb enough to pretend to hire an anchor—any anchor of any sex—for his or her journalistic skills deserves to lose a lawsuit. And just because Miss Craft was naïve enough to believe that the station wanted her for her journalistic skills doesn’t mean she didn’t deserve to win one. But who’s everybody kidding? An anchor may be a journalist, just as an actor may be a playwright, but what’s that got to do with the job. […] Good reporting is hard and not many people of either sex do it well. Whereas any dope can read.” And so the prophesy is fulfilled: Katie Couric, Brian Williams (whose interview with George Bush in New Orleans on Aug. 30 was a federal disaster area all its own), Charles Gibson, Anderson Cooper.
But Meredith Vieira? She is that rarity of a combination: as good a reporter as she is an anchor. She has more smarts in one of her delectable ankles than Katie Couric has managed to amass in an entire career. She can and has done it all: local news, network news, 60 Minutes, game shows, and for all those years that sorority Superfund site known as “The View,” more recently invaded and occupied by Rosie O’Donnell, the Sisterhood’s equivalent of The Big Red One. And Vieira could manage the one thing no anchor or national reporter in the business would even dare project, let alone know how to honestly entertain: an undercurrent of tragedy in her eyes, that strain of utter (and utterly controlled) sadness she bore going back to her days at WCBS, as if to say, Look at this mess I’m having to report. She didn’t make you feel that fuzzy “trust” consultants demand from their talent. She made you feel the news. She must have abandoned something along the way. Gotten hip to brightness as a shield, though in the proper role, who knows. Vieira’s degradation to the anchor booth of a morning chat show is its own sum-up of where television talent goes to die. In a just world the roles would have been reversed: Couric still dimpling “Today,” Vieira in the CBS Evening News anchor chair, where she might have even been the one to return those bedraggled twenty-three minutes of belly button fuzz to their pre-Rather glory days. It’s a wonder Cronkite didn’t finally keel over when he introduced Couric on her first day.
Because what does all this narrate in the end? It’s not “the end of the world news,” as Anthony Burgess had it, but the end of news, period. When the messenger replaces the message with himself (or herself), and on a daily stage of orgiastic showboating, it’s not even anchors as show business anymore. It’s anchors as America’s sensory aristocracy. Benevolent though it may be, its constantly repeated message is the same whether Iraq is the new Cambodia or Afghanistan is returning to its hellish old self: Don’t worry. Be happy. And See You Tomorrow. Regardless of the hour on network television news, it’s always Morning in America. The constancy of reassuring, mother-hen sensibilities with a wink of the girl next door (you know the kind, all Sunday school and sultry) subordinates everything to the verbal hug. In a world like that, where’s the urgency to change anything, let alone see things for what they are, as opposed to seeing things for what Couric’s smile and Cooper’s acted outrage make them out to be? And by making every newscast a show about the anchor, the leap from the viewer’s end is barely a leap: “It’s all about me.” And isn’t that the motto of 21 st century America? Overseas readers (who make up a good portion of this web site) may have no clue about this infliction of anchor-madness on their time. But keep in mind, overseas reader, that understanding the American anchor culture more deeply goes to the heart of this country’s psychy, shallow though it is, than understanding its high arts and literature these days.
It doesn’t take watching every night, or even more than a night, or more than once in your lifetime.
The run-up to both Couric’s and Vieira’s first shows had something of the sordid about them, an implosion of reality for the sake of self-reference. It isn’t even the dopey news they read that matters anymore. The news is the frame, Muzak to their personalities and pretensions. What matters is the brand. Instead of Andie MacDowell selling Revlon, it’s Couric selling the CBS Evening news and Vieira selling “Today,” next to that drywall in human form with the drywall brand name to boot: Matt Lauer. Vieira’s first interview was an orgasm of self-reference: Tim Russert. An interviewer interviewing an interviewer, while it was left up to the Lauer to devote substantial network air time to the Florida teacher who described fucking her 14-year-old student this way: “Yeah, he wanted it, and yeah, I gave it to him.” I was 14 when I wanted Vieira, too, but she had the grace to keep our affair between us, and she never said “yeah.” It was always “yes.”
At least we’ll always have West 57th.