Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2004/ 20 Kislev, 5765
Tom Paine, but no pajamas
Tom Brokaw, like a good wine, aged nicely, and he still has the boyish looks easy on female eyes. Brian Williams, even easier on the eyes, will continue in that tradition at NBC. The reporting, however, is of diminishing importance.
The replacement for Dan Rather at CBS will be as much about show biz as journalism. The odds-on favorites are Scott Pelley and John Roberts, pretty faces who have experience at looking good on camera, often in the hot sun with a cool wind and a cold rain at their backs, sometimes with bombs falling in the distance. Nice backdrops are crucial to TV news. But the emphasis on television news will continue to be more on how an anchor looks than on how he recites the words put in front of him.
CBS could choose a not-so-pretty face, like Tim Russert of "Meet the Press," who may be the best in the television business for asking tough questions. But why would he give up his Sunday job for nightly news reading, even if his network would let him out of his contract?
The farewell to Tom Brokaw was so overdone that the tributes began to sound like a wake, but the anchor himself got it right in an elegant closing: "It's not the questions that get us in trouble, it's the answers." That's the lesson Dan Rather had to learn the hard way, and it led to a less than auspicious announcement that he would soon be gone, too.
No matter who gets the Rather seat, you can already hear the cheering from conservatives who haven't forgiven Dan for his unfair and unbalanced reporting. Whomever CBS chooses to anchor the news, competition from bloggers, cable TV, and even the newspaper sites on the Internet makes the choice considerably less important than it used to be. The newsreaders achieve the big bucks that come with celebrity status, but they never have the robust attitudes and personalities you can still find in the newsrooms of the daily newspaper.
In the days before television, New York had a dozen dailies, Boston and Chicago had half that - even Washington had four - and nearly every city of even medium size had both morning and afternoon papers. Newspapermen were of a different breed, literally. The cliche was that Southerners, Jews and the Irish were the best at what they did: the Southerners for their love of language and story-telling, the Jews for the opportunity to do good, and the Irish for the booze that politicians and press agents were always stuffing into the bottom drawers of newsroom desks. I knew sportswriters who occasionally filed stories to rival newspapers when certain colleagues were as smashed as a fullback by the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Newspapermen (the term includes both sexes) have fewer bad habits today - booze, cigarettes and cigars have been banished along with the clatter of typewriters and teletype machines, replaced by politically correct attitudes and the "civilizing" influence of women. But newspaper reporters continue to regard themselves as uniquely authentic. "What has often infuriated newspapermen is that television news couldn't exist without newspapers," writes Wesley Pruden, editor-in-chief of the Washington Times, "since the newspaper is where the television producers not only clip most of their news, but where they go to find out what's news and what's not." But newspaper readership, like television news audiences, is down, and growing numbers of Americans grow up bereft of the morning newspaper with the first cup of coffee.
If they want to see what their grandfathers and grandmothers missed they can soon log onto old newspapers preserved in the National Digital Newspaper Program, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress. Eventually 30 million pages of newspapers will be digitally preserved. Bruce Cole, director of NEH, is fond of reciting the colorful newspaper names of an era not so far behind us, such as The Cain Country Razooper, The Daily Unterrified Democrat, The Castigator.
"Anyone who's interested - students, historians, lawyers, politicians and even newspaper reporters - will be able to go to their computer at home or at work and at the click of a mouse get immediate access to the greatest source of our history," he says. "You will be able to search in day-to-day accounts in these old newspapers." He particularly relishes a headline in the Tulsa Daily World of November 16, 1907, the day Oklahoma became a state: "Roosevelt to shove the quill at nine." (That was Teddy, not Franklin.)
Surveys of our past in newspapers naturally raise questions about what kind of influence the Internet will have on the new democracy of unfiltered bloggers. "Are they our Tom Paines and the pamphleteers of our digital revolution?" asks Bruce Cole.
Tom Paine in pajamas? Perish the thought.
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