The Rise & Decline of Brian the Mediocre
As a TV critic I was required to make judgments, right or wrong. In my 35 years at Newsday as the resident adjudicator-general of the most influential art form of the 20th century, as I called TV then, it is estimated I made 22,785 of them. 97% were right. Nobody is perfect. One of the calls I am most proud of was my coverage of Brian Williams, the iconic American anchorman who I am being told is (or was, until last week) the most trusted in the nation. It took 11 years before my chickens came home to roost.
THE MAKING OF AN ANCHORMAN
The selection and seating of a new network evening news anchorman in the middle years of the last century was a ritual in American cultural society parallel to the picking of a new Pope. It was even more important than the election of a president in some cases, the anchorman being more respected as a shaper of public opinion and thought.
The most momentous watching of the smoke rising I attended as critic was the end of the reign of Tom Brokaw, who sat in one of the three most prestigious jobs as the anchor of “The NBC Evening News with Tom Brokaw.” Pope Tom served from 1982 to 2004 as the most trusted man in America, a title shared with Uncle Walter (Cronkite) or Peter the Great (Jennings).
I had been astonished to learn that Tom was jumping from his seat of power in 2002. Why, he had been an anchorman so long he had barnacles. The thing about anchor people is they never willingly stepped down. They age before our eyes, like the Dorian Grays of the communication arts. It is as if they are sentenced to serve for eternity, their seats set in concrete.
Anchors ordinarily don’t throw themselves overboard. They are assisted by someone, giving them a push. They get the yellow carpet treatment, made of banana peels.
The last anchorman to step down voluntarily in modern times, as far as I knew, was Chet Huntley who had a midlife crisis, leaving the “The Huntley-Brinkley Report “ at NBC (1956-1970) to build a ski resort in Montana.
Even the One and Only Original Most Trusted Uncle Walter was handed his retirement papers as he was made to walk the plank in 1981 to make room for a rising star, the getting restless, Dan Rather.
Indeed, Brokaw himself couldn’t have ascended to the throne without first assisting in pushing John Chancellor out of the way. Chancellor explained the inexplicable by saying his dream was to be a commentator, the next Eric Sevareid who we used to call Eric Severalsides because of his managing to be so consistently undecided.
Should an anchor wake up one morning, and say, “ I think I will retire,” the bosses won’t let the talent get away with such craziness. It takes too long to build up a replacement. Brokaw’s GE bosses normally would offer more money. Under the influence of a drug like money, people in broadcasting are known to do or say anything.
But in Brokaw’s case there was a deus ex machina. The geniuses at NBC News had a replacement bobbing in the water, named Brian Williams.
The end of Tom Brokaw seemed to last longer than Cher’s farewell concert. It began in the spring of 2002 with Tom’s startling announcement that what he always wanted to do was retire. But first he wanted to cover one more national presidential election (2004).
It reminded me of the South American presidents who announce they will hold free elections…some day…and then eventually consider it a mandate from the people to be president for life.
But Tom seemed sincere. As vigorous as the energizer bunny, he nevertheless told us he wanted to go off to take care of his cows on his ranch in Montana, a state he co-owned with Ted Turner. Or whatever else he had in mind.
By 2004, Brian William was waiting in the wings so long for Tom to leave; we were calling him the graying heir apparent.
I still remember the formal press conference when the NBC brain trust called in the media to 30 Rock to tell us the good news that yes, it was true. Brian was taking over for Tom… soon. Tom reminded us again he was thrilled to be retiring at the top of his game. It’s what he always wanted to do. Or so he was told when NBC announced six months earlier that Brian Williams was his designated- newsreader. That was a long time ago. The event had all the pomp and seriousness of a presidential funeral.
I will never forget the look on the faces of the principals in Studio 8-H on the stage filled with NBC News, GE executives, the principals and their seconds and thirds. The only guy on stage who looked happy was Brian Williams. They all looked like somebody off stage had pulled a gun on them.
Unbeknownst to the public, it was a coup engineered by Brian’s agents. They had Tom’s pledge to gather up his hair spray, after shave lotion and other mementos of his 22 years in office, and say sayonara.
What was in play behind the scenes was the fear factor. If NBC would not lay out the road map for Brian to take over before he was embalmed, Brian was wanted by CBS. NBC hit the panic button –and missed.
To be continued
The Marvin Kitman Show
Feb. 20. 2015