Anchoring the Nation  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   November 2001

Anchoring the Nation   

The network anchors are far more than journalists during times of national crisis. As they reassure the public, they play the roles, consciously or not, of minister, counselor, leader—which can make it tricky when they have to once again raise tough questions about government policy.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

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Just for a moment, Peter Jennings was aware that he was doing something that went far beyond simply reporting the facts. He had been in ABC's anchor chair for more than 12 hours September 11, relaying information as rapidly as the network could gather it, when he thought of the sociological role television, and he as an anchor, played in such a national crisis.

ABC News would stay on the air for an "indefinite period of time," he told viewers, to report on the terrorist attacks, and also because of something a historian once told him--"that the television set is roughly equivalent to a campfire in the days as the wagon trains were making their way westward and there was a catastrophe on the trail. Some people pulled the wagons around, and sat down and discussed what was going on, and tried to understand it, and then went on the next day. And we do that in front of our television sets now in large measure today."

That moment was the first time during coverage of this story that Jennings thought about TV's bigger picture, its ability to offer a sense of community, he says. That campfire analogy came from historian Daniel Boorstin in 1986. Jennings had worked about 12 hours straight, covering the sudden explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and had returned to his hotel to find special editions of the Washington Post and New York Times. "It was the first instance," Jennings says, "when I realized that I had been involved in something that was huge. And I was quite shaken, because when you do a broadcast like this you have...many specific things in mind, but I was quite overwhelmed by the enormity of it." He went to the Library of Congress and asked Boorstin for guidance. "I had not anticipated that this was as engrossing for the country, and I had not anticipated that people would look to the anchorperson for something more than a recitation of things going on."

Television anchors may not intentionally try to be anything beyond journalists, but in the early stages of a national crisis, just giving information and simply being there and being who they are does foster additional roles. Academics, TV critics and viewers say having the trusted, familiar faces of ABC's Peter Jennings, NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather constantly on their screens in the days after the September 11 attacks provided a sense of calm, stability and comfort. As expected, the three men were on the air almost immediately--within an hour of the two planes exploding into the World Trade Center – and they stayed more than 13 hours, late into the night. Like the reassuring light on the front porch.

"If you had turned on your TV, and they said, 'We can't find Dan Rather,' that would've been horrible," says Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik.

The assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon top the list of the handful of times television guided the nation through sudden grief--the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was the first, the Challenger explosion the second. Certainly, there have been other major news events, but none with such surprise and shock. None that gripped the whole nation as this did.

After the September 11 attacks, the network anchors--fixtures for almost 20 years--rose from their diminished roles on the audience-eroded evening news to be the nation's primary voices of information. According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project poll conducted September 12 and 13, 81 percent of Americans got most of their information on the attacks from television. (Nielsen did not have ratings numbers for only the networks for those first few days.) While many people tuned in to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, the cable news channels don't carry the household-name anchors like the networks do--Peter, Tom and Dan, who could deliver the news but, equally as important, provide a sense of calm and solace that viewers craved.

"When something happens that is jarring to the system, and this surely was, you turn to symbols of continuity, of reassurance, and [the network anchors] served that role," says former broadcaster Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "And, I have to add, I think they served it very well."

Michael Schudson, a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, says that anchors reassure people "in part by their tone, in part by the very fact that they're there on the air looking like they usually look and sounding like they usually sound, but without the occasional note of levity or irony that you might get on a normal broadcast." Journalists do this without thinking about it much, he adds. "It's not like someone had to make an executive decision--'We're moving from mode A to mode B,' " he says. "Everyone knows how to behave at a funeral."

At 9:44 a.m. that fateful day, Jennings, who went on air shortly after 9 o'clock, got word of fire at the Pentagon. "We want to hold our breath here, just seems to me, for a second and not get into a mode that the country is under attack," he said.

Both the tone and the message were clear--let's remain calm.

Calm and steady are qualities that anchors say are of the utmost importance, and it's comments like this that help to foster the notion of the anchor-as-reassurance-figure.

"I think probably the universal comment I get in everybody's e-mail to me...is that they thought I was calm," Jennings says. "I'm actually not normally a very calm person, but I seem to calm down in crisis.... I don't think it's our job to be reassuring" or a counselor or a minister for viewers. "But I don't want people to get...unduly afraid."

Like it or not, many media professors say, TV anchors play the roles of minister, counselor and leader during such times. Providing a source of solace is part of being a minister, says Steven Livingston, a professor and director of the political communication program at George Washington University. "This is one of the most chaotic, nerve-jangling moments in American history," he says, and Americans turned to television. "It could be argued that it was actually television that served to bind us as communities.... The anchors were the high priests of this civic, cultural ritual."

Daniel Hallin, a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, calls the early stages of coverage of a breaking news story "the sphere of consensus." It's the time when there's only one view of the events, and when journalists are not expected to be neutral. They "play a role of confirming consensus values...like a priestly role," Hallin says. They're not criticizing; they're not offering differing viewpoints. They're conveying one core message. In moments of crisis, religious leaders guide and console, much like TV anchors. For James Carey, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, the role-playing is reflected by pronouns. Journalists "stop saying 'you,' and they start saying 'we' and 'us,' " he says. " 'We are suffering, we are feeling. Our country has been hurt.' " The anchors' voices drop, they become solemn or "pious," Carey says, "whether they mean to do it or not."

On the evening of September 11, Dan Rather asked Richard Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state: "What are the most important things for Americans to have in mind as we steady ourselves and prepare for the long trail back from this day of infamy?" And later, "Now this attack on America was an attack first and foremost on powerful symbols of our beloved United States."

Journalists, in a case like this, identify with their audience, their fellow Americans. This was an attack on their home, too, after all, and much of the first days of coverage reflected the fact that "we"--journalists and viewing public – were sharing in the hurt, the unbelievability and confusion. Many of the initial events unfolded before the anchors and the public at the same time, strengthening that common bond.

Walter Cronkite wasn't thinking about playing any role other than that of a journalist when he brought the public the news of President Kennedy's assassination, along with a bit of emotion as he choked up on the air. But he can see that these attributes do manifest themselves in TV coverage. "In general, I think that it is true that, as has been said often in crises in the past and even more so with the dimensions of this, that the television news programs do bring the people together in the sense that we are all witnesses to the same events at the same time," Cronkite says. "As the sort of custodians to that image, I suppose we could say that anchorpeople and the principal correspondents sort of serve as moral guides at critical moments."

TV takes you there, letting you see and hear what's happening live. The immediacy and closeness give anchors these weighty roles. TV "encourages a sense of intimacy with the people we see on it...what I call media friends," says Joshua Meyrowitz, a professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire. "They speak to us as if they're speaking to us individually." We have an emotional connection to Tom or Peter or Dan. Those good-for-TV attributes--good looks, deep voices, presence--aid in creating a feeling of "not to worry, Dan's in charge." Says Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University: "These guys are a lot of show business mixed in with journalism.... Here's a situation where that show business aspect comes in a bit handy or at least is comforting to people."

They are figures, Meyrowitz notes, whom we've known for much longer than we've known the president of the country. Dan Rather took over for Walter Cronkite in 1981; Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw got into their anchor chairs in 1983. And while President Bush addressed the nation many times during this crisis, Brokaw, Rather and Jennings were a constant, talking to viewers minute after minute, hour after hour.

"I think the network anchors become de facto national leaders as a function of the public so quickly and so many members of the public turning to television when they first hear bad news," says Philip Seib, a journalism professor at Marquette University. "We see much more in those crucial hours...of these de facto national leaders than the elected national leaders."

Brokaw invoked the president's words to encourage viewers the evening of September 11. The terrorists "must be thinking tonight wherever they are that they have succeeded in this first stage of this terrorist war against the United States. But it is far, far from over," he said. "The price has been very heavy for the United States in so many ways.... But the president of the United States tonight pledged to the American people that in fact that there would be justice visited upon the terrorists and any nation that may harbor them. And he then also praised the American people as they came together to help heal the wounds of this long and difficult day."

Hearing that from someone many Americans have known for a good part of their lives gave those words added strength. "I think we'll never see a case like this again, where the network anchors have such long tenures," says Philadelphia Inquirer TV columnist Gail Shister. "Stability provides comfort, and predictability provides comfort. To me, that's human nature."

It's also human nature in a time of crisis to want to shield yourself inside your home, under your own roof, says Roger Mudd, documentary host for the History Channel and a former network anchor and correspondent. "And you want reassuring things around you, and if you're in the habit of watching one or the other or the other, that's the one."

When the news of a plane striking the World Trade Center first reached the networks, anchors and producers didn't pause to discuss how they should project the roles of comforting leaders. There wasn't time, and besides, they were busy being journalists.

"We played the same role we always play," says Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight." "We get the news, we check out the news.... We make sure it's correct."

Despite comments Jennings and Rather made on the air that seem to suggest they do think about these philosophical issues, they say that when they're on duty they don't see themselves as being anything other than conveyors of news. "I'm only now, that we're after the event, beginning to think about any of that," Rather said in early October. "And to be honest with you, I'm not thinking about it much. From the early seconds of this national disaster, I focused entirely on the work at hand."

Jennings makes similar comments. "If people see you as playing a role, for me, it's clearly an unconscious one," he says. "And it is clear that people do see us as more than reporters at the time, and I can tell that by my e-mail. And I don't think one is ever conscious of it at the time. It's almost a question the anchorperson him or herself can't answer." (Brokaw was not available for an interview.)

At times Jennings felt as if he were teaching the public, when he talked about Islam, for instance. He sees his role as that of a guide--"to guide people through the facts as they develop," he says. "In a moment like this the only thing you can be is yourself.... You have no time to be anything other than what you are or who you are."

He rejects the notion that he acted as a priest for grieving viewers. "I am not a minister. I am not a counselor. I am not a psychiatrist," Jennings says. "I am at best a guide."

The anchors seem humbled by the idea that viewers look to them for more than the news. "These other descriptions that you gave to me," Rather says, "I understand what you're saying and I appreciate it, and I guess there's a small part of me that hopes maybe it's true. But mostly, overwhelmingly, I want to be known as a reporter, an honest broker of information."

The funny thing is, that's all they have to be--who they are and on TV – and that alone will spark an emotive response from viewers. They, and management, are aware of the stability conveyed by having the same main anchor on air for 12 hours plus in the initial days of coverage. (On September 11, Jennings sat down in the chair at about 9 a.m. and signed off at 2 a.m.; Rather and Brokaw logged in just over 16 hours and 13 hours and 45 minutes, respectively.)

Having a constant anchor in that chair, Rather says, "conveys a sense of continuity, steadiness, reliability, putting forward someone the audience knows and knows has been there." ABC's Slavin says that "it was critical" that Jennings remained on air for as long as he did.

The Kennedy assassination in 1963 marked the first time "that television and sociologists and all the people who study that realized that the steady anchorperson is a very important part of reassuring people that everybody's shingles weren't flying off their roofs," Mudd says.

Anchors do have additional responsibilities beyond that of reporter. They are network leaders. They are personalities. They project emotions, ideas, intimacy. These roles may be unconscious, but it's interesting that as the anchors talk about their duties, they start sounding awfully similar to the sociologists.

In the early coverage, Rather says, "the most important thing is solidarity, unity, let's play team as a nation." He talks about having an attitude of, " 'Look, folks, you're going to see the newsgathering process as it develops.'... It's, 'Come with me as we cover this disaster.' "

On Friday, September 14, the designated national day of mourning, Jennings remarked that "we'll do what we can in the next few hours to once again bind the country together using television, because it is a wonderful instrument on occasions like this so that we can all participate."

The anchors are an integral part of that instrument. These nonjournalistic functions are inherent in their duties, even though the job description may not include "be a comfort" and that may not be the way anchors think of themselves. In an Associated Press story, Brokaw acknowledged that TV has this ability to pull people together and attributed it to basic news processes. "The comfort comes in the information they get and the context and in trying to strike the right demeanor," he was quoted as saying.

Jennings, Slavin says, does become "a stabilizing influence because he is a filter for information." That's his job. Beyond that, the only way the anchor's broader function affects ABC's mission is in the amount of time the network allots to news, Slavin says. "We have devoted more time to this story than any story."

Providing comfort, reassurance and consolation sounds like a fine assignment for network anchors. But it can create difficulties when it's time to be critical of the government or question the effectiveness of military action. They've united the country--Dan Rather even said so. Can they then be skeptical reporters?

Syracuse's Thompson says anchors are asked to play these contradictory parts--to be someone with whom viewers identify and to be a questioning journalist. "I think we occasionally see these two roles colliding into one another."

In the early phases, the anchors were playing the role of priest, says Columbia's Carey, but as the first week wore on, they started to mildly question government actions. "There was a kind of moving back and forth between priest and poet, I suppose, as they felt their way through it," he says. That caused some tension between what the audience wanted and what a journalist ought to be, he says.

None of the academics interviewed for this article thinks that journalists should not offer comfort and reassurance in the initial coverage. But moving away from that can be tricky, particularly in this instance, as the crisis carried such far-reaching ramifications. "Its gravity was such that it would have been wrong for journalists at the outset to say, 'Well, I'm just an observer here.... I don't have a stake in this,' " Carey says.

Says the University of California's Daniel Hallin: "This is the kind of case where it's very appropriate for them to express the fact that they, like other Americans, feel this solidarity and feel the pain.... But it leads over into the coverage of the political meaning of the event."

Early on, there was evidence that this transition would be like tiptoeing around mud puddles. ABC received more than 10,000 calls and e-mails about some comments Jennings didn't quite make. Thanks to radio host Rush Limbaugh and the power of the Internet, many thought Jennings questioned why President Bush was taking so long to address the nation September 11. Echoing the outrage of circulating e-mails, Limbaugh said that "the things said by Jennings--that Bush was somehow just not up to this task--made a lot of people angry. That's the wrong time to play that card, Peter, and try to push this media template of Bush as a dolt."

In fact, Jennings had said that "none of us should be surprised at what is happening," and went on to talk about the power the Secret Service has and how seriously its members take the mission of protecting the president. Jennings added that "the country looks to the president on occasions like this to be reassuring to the nation. Some presidents do it well, and some presidents don't."

Jennings says it was painful to receive so many angry responses, but he understands that "people's feelings are in turmoil. They're deeply passionate about certain things, and so the people that thought I said something reacted viscerally."

Does this make it difficult to bring up any criticism of the government on air? "It's not hard if you realize that this is a crisis...and a challenge for the nation," he says. At least when you're talking with politicians, he says, "I think one is obliged as a reporter to say, 'Are you setting the bar too high rhetorically?' "

Jennings did have a couple of exchanges on air with politicians in which he pressed them on how certain they were of their information. An interview with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on September 11:

Hatch: "There's no question that [the CIA] intercepted information that included people associated with Osama bin Laden who acknowledge that a couple of targets were hit."

Jennings: "Everybody in the world knew a couple of targets were hit, senator. Did you--did you press the question?"

Hatch: "Well, but they--they. This--this is – look, Peter, don't give me that.... These are people at the top of the CIA. And – and I'm just saying that that's what they said."

Meyrowitz, though, says the public should be seeing more coverage of U.S. foreign policy and stories that explore why so many people are angry with the United States. If anchors do fulfill a ministerial function, he says, they aren't being very good ministers. There are three roles that real-life clergymen play, Meyrowitz says, and the anchors are only serving well in one of them--the comfort role. The second role, he says, is to discourage people from striking out at others. (He thought the anchors embraced the idea of war.) And the third is to encourage introspection. "I think a minister would raise some questions about the United States' place in the world," he says. "The problem with this third ministerial role, the time to do this is before the crisis."

Before September 11, however, the media had allowed coverage of foreign news to decline – significantly. It's doubtful the effects of that diminution have ever been felt more forcefully than now.

Many say the media can be critical of government policies, but it will take some time. "And I think that's about the way it ought to be," Mudd says. "During these [first] two weeks, people are not ready to hear what critics call carping, but it will come out soon enough in a way that will be acceptable to viewers." There will be time to study and reflect on history, Rather says, "but not when evil people are crashing airplanes into buildings.... I'm confident that the audience knows and certainly my record reflects that I'm not afraid to ask tough questions. And I do think it's the responsibility of a patriot, of any patriotic journalist, to question power whether it's popular or unpopular."

It's not an easy shift, says Kalb. The anchors "have to find a way of balancing their patriotism with a continuing degree of journalistic skepticism. And that is monstrously difficult. Monstrously difficult," he says. The best way to be patriotic, he agrees, it to be skeptical and to make certain the public has accurate information.

As for foreign coverage, Rather hopes that the temporary increase will last. "I'm mildly optimistic," he says. The decline in foreign coverage had little to do with a lack of public interest, he says, and more to do with news organizations not wanting to pay for it. "It's the most expensive coverage you can have."

The current elevated status of the network anchors is reminiscent of the '60s and '70s, when far more Americans turned to the evening news for their daily information than do today. Everyone knows who Brokaw, Rather and Jennings are, but in recent years, the public has not relied on them as it did in the past.

"I think we're surprised to see our anchors in a different way in this new situation," says Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. "In fact, maybe what we're surprised to see them acting like [is] anchors of a generation before instead of acting like they usually act."

Syracuse's Thompson says the marathon coverage has upped the importance of the position in the chair. "How the decision is made as to who replaces them now may be made with some very different criteria in mind," he says.

The decision is not too far off--Rather is 70, Jennings 63, and Brokaw 61. Their replacements will have to be reporters first, but "also someone who is able to put out that sense of strength and comfort and all the rest of it," Thompson says.

Whether they mean to do it or not, it comes with the territory.

Despite all the experience the three bring with them, coverage of September 11 tested their abilities in new ways--this was not the same as previous national tragedies. "I don't think there's ever been anything quite like it," Jennings says. "Everything that was happening in front of us, an attack on the country that had never happened before...the clear magnitude of the people who have died...the various tests of leadership.... There's so many components to this that nothing else compares."

Lori Robertson is AJR's managing editor. Editorial assistant Shannon E. Canton contributed research to this story.

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