Guest Commentary: Playing musical chairs with network anchors

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

History repeats itself, both times as farce.
In 1982 Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, had lunch with Dan Rather.
Dan’s friends sensed he was restless. He had distinguished himself as a White House correspondent and he was already semi-famous because during the run-up to Watergate he asked President Nixon an unwelcome question, and when Nixon retorted sharply, “Are you running for president?” Dan answered, “No, Mr. President. Are you?”
Or maybe it wasn’t lunch. Perhaps just a casual meeting. Or his agent spoke to whoever at ABC speaks to agents. But CBS learned something was going on, and the uneasy heads at the top became uneasier.
Walter Cronkite was an institution. For two decades he had soothed an anxious public by telling them, “The way it is.” He had led them through all the televised political conventions but one (when CBS Chairman Bill Paley removed him because NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley” ratings were so much higher); cried for them when Jack Kennedy was killed; and exulted for them when Scott Armstrong landed on the moon. “Go, Baby, go!” he would say at liftoff, just like the guys in Mission Control.
When Cronkite said the Vietnam War could not be won, Lyndon Johnson knew he had lost America. Anchormen were like that in those days.
How could you remove Uncle Walter?
Not only that, the job had been all but promised-if it ever became vacant, that is-to correspondent Roger Mudd, who had faithfully covered Congress while he waited. He had flown to New York every Friday to do the weekend news, and he had asked Ted Kennedy the innocent question, “Why do you want to be president?” that Kennedy muffed so badly it killed his hopes to become president.
But if Arledge got Rather, who knew what harm ABC News could do? So Cronkite was retired with fanfare and flourish and elected to the CBS board of directors. Rather was assumed into the pantheon of anchormen, and Mudd quit in a huff and went to NBC.
Then Arledge had lunch with Tom Brokaw. Or again, maybe it wasn’t lunch. But NBC President Fred Silverman, about to be fired after several years of cumulative programming disasters, took an associate aside during a break in Herb Allen’s annual conclave of media big shots in Aspen, Colo.
“After this meeting,” said Fred, “I’m out of NBC. From here I go to Hawaii to relax. But I can’t go without tying to keep Brokaw from leaving. When you go back to New York, do what you can.”
Brokaw, who had worked well as a White House correspondent during Watergate and then gone on to be host of “Today,” was looking for new challenges. He was tired of getting up at 4 every morning. Thus ended John Chancellor’s years as anchor, and he became a commentator. But the then president of NBC News had previously promised Chancellor’s job to Roger Mudd. A compromise was arranged: Mudd and Brokaw anchored the “Nightly News” together, an awkward arrangement that did not last long.
The point of all this being that in 1982, the president of ABC News chose the anchor for CBS News, and then he chose the anchor for NBC News, but he did not pick his own.
Last Tuesday, 20 years after the events mentioned here, the press was summoned on very short notice to Studio 8-H in what used to be the RCA Building and is now the GE Building. Reporters know 8-H because that is where “Saturday Night Live” is staged, but they are too young to remember that Chet Huntley and David Brinkley stayed up all night there before declaring at 7:45 a.m. that John F. Kennedy had defeated Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Before they were born, Arturo Toscanini, who fled Benito Mussolini’s police just in time, led the NBC Symphony in 8-H. The press conference ignored all that.
NBC Chairman Bob Wright was there; NBC President Andy Lack was there; NBC News President Neal Shapiro was there; Brokaw was there.
Brian Williams arrived late. Williams anchors an hour-long news program seen weeknights on NBC’s cable news channel, MSNBC, and repeated an hour later on NBC’s financial cable news channel, CNBC. He had been brought over from CBS some years earlier for these and other chores, and if not with a promise at least with a wink and a nod that he would succeed Brokaw.
It was rumored that Williams was talking, directly or indirectly, to CBS. Rather had already been anchoring longer than Cronkite had when Dan replaced him; also, Dan is older now than Walter was in 1982. If CBS could not promise to move Williams into Rather’s chair right away, went the rumors, they had a demanding but highly visible vacancy in their morning program now that Bryant Gumbel had left. Perhaps Brian Williams had talked to Roger Mudd, or perhaps he already knew about putting faith in princes.
(White House correspondent John Roberts, who usually replaces Rather during his absences, was thought at CBS to be his successor by many, presumably including Roberts.)
The news conference was a lovefest. Brokaw would sign a new contract. He would remain anchor through election night 2004, when he would validate for America a new or renewed president. It’s one of those nights anchormen live for, and he would have one more. Williams’ new contract would be for seven years, and when Brokaw left, Williams would anchor “NBC Nightly News.” Everybody was suitably humble, as befits great occasions.
So, during the second week of November 2004, when you see Brian Williams anchoring “NBC Nightly News” he will not be substituting for a vacationing or speech-making or “on assignment” Tom Brokaw. He will be there of his own right, as principal journalist of the National Broadcasting Company, its public face.
It pays to talk to CBS.
Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.