Brian Williams and the cult of the 'action anchor'

A good TV news anchor doesn't have to be a great reporter #BrianWilliamsMisremembers

As Brian William takes a few days off, licking his wounds or twisting slowly in the wind, it's worth remembering that network TV news anchors aren’t the celebrities they used to be. 

The Pew Research Center has been recycling the results of a 2013 online survey showing that only 27% of the public could correctly identify Williams. Pew explains that this is new: “Three decades ago, when far more Americans watched the nightly network news programs, nearly half (47%) could identify Dan Rather, who at the time anchored the top-rated CBS evening News.”

This trend is likely to put pressure on networks to do more to promote the cult of the anchor — for example, by dispatching their anchors even more often to the front lines of breaking news stories. But the Williams affair shows the dangers of turning TV journalists into action heroes. (Williams’ mythic ride on a Chinook helicopter predated his anointing as the regular anchor of "NBC Nightly News," but he has invoked it since then.)

What if networks went in the opposite direction and demystified the news anchor? That would involve acknowledging that anchors are primarily what the British call them — “newsreaders.” No longer would anchors Bigfoot their way into war zones, pushing aside less famous but probably more knowledgeable field reporters. Nor would aspiring TV anchors be required to salt their resumes with reporting stints. (The official NBC biography of Lester Holt, Williams' stand-in, notes that Holt "has reported from many of the world's hot spots.")

Reading the news is an honorable profession that requires important performance skills, as the brainy but untelegenic character played by Albert Brooks found out in “Broadcast News.” The character played by William Hurt in that film was, despite his shakier grasp of the facts, the superior anchor.

As St. Paul said, there are different gifts of the spirit, and one of them is a sonorous voice that inspires trust. Walter Cronkite had a distinguished career as a reporter. But he became a national institution not because of his reporting skills but because of his avuncular and authoritative onscreen presence.

If Williams returns to his anchor desk, maybe he should stay there.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3


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6:42 p.m.: Late Tuessday NBC announced that Brian Williams has been suspended for six months without pay.

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