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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

A High-Profile Debut   

Interview by Alicia C. Shepard


By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

Aaron Brown had barely started at CNN when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. He's been a constant on-air presence ever since as the news network's lead anchor.

Last spring CNN, losing ground in the increasingly competitive cable news wars, made a run at ABC News' Aaron Brown. For a decade at ABC, Brown had worked as a weekend anchor and as a correspondent for "Nightline" and "World News Tonight." But CNN's offer was tough to refuse--and Brown didn't. He would launch a nightly news program at 10 p.m. called "NewsNight with Aaron Brown." More significant, when major news broke, he would serve as lead anchor on the network watched around the world.

"NewsNight" debuted November 5. But Brown moved into prime time two months earlier, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He has been a constant on-air presence ever since. Brown, 52, who is the first to say he doesn't look or sound like a "leading man," hardly fits the stereotype of the network anchor. Yet he's garnered many positive reviews for his laid-back, reassuring style during an immensely trying time.

AJR senior writer Alicia C. Shepard interviewed Brown in mid-November at CNN's studios at 5 Penn Plaza in midtown Manhattan:

AJR: So where were you on September 11? AB: I was on the West Side Highway. The phone rang. It was [producer] David Bohrman. He said: "A plane hit the World Trade Center." I had gotten behind a police car, and at that point I was just sort of following him. Then, on the radio, I heard the second tower had been hit, and I got it. I'm not the smartest guy on the block, but I got it. The police car, he just floored it, man. He was moving. I was right behind him at that point. He was running lights and so was I.

AJR: Then what happened? AB: I got to 34th. I turned and my mind was churning. I was just sort of going through this checklist. Do I have a shirt? Do I have a tie? Have I shaved? What am I going to do with the car? I parked the car. I was coming across 8th Avenue and I'm running.

AJR: Didn't you want to go to the scene? AB: No, I knew exactly where I belonged. As I came across 8th Avenue I remember saying to myself: "Just slow down." The one thing you don't want to be is out of breath. So I walked from the corner to here.

AJR: Why slow down? AB: Because I think the worst thing an anchor can do is to seem excited or breathless. I remember this feeling of extraordinary calm. I felt from the time I got on this floor, really, until I walked off the roof [where he had worked from a makeshift studio] at whatever time of night, 9 p.m. or whatever, I felt calm. Really calm. I mean unbelievably calm. I'm not an especially calm person, although on television I tend to be. I just felt like, OK, this is what you spent 30 years preparing to do. You know how to do this work. Without knowing the facts, I knew what to do.

AJR: Did you at any point have time to process what was happening? AB: There are little moments of cognition along the way. But a lot of them take place on the air. When the second tower fell, I said before and it's stupid and I feel stupid, but it never occurred to me those buildings would come down.

AJR: You didn't realize what had happened? AB: The building came down, and there was this huge plume of smoke. I know I said something like, "I just don't know what's behind that smoke. I don't know if some of it, all of it, has come down. I don't know."

AJR: Could you see it collapse, or did you see it on the monitor? AB: No, I was looking right at it. I turned around, which I did a lot that day, because the whole thing was playing out behind me. It started to come down. I know I said: "Oh, my God" or "Oh, my gosh." I'm not sure now. Then I don't know that I said anything for a bit.

AJR: Anything else? AB: Later in the day, I remember David [Bohrman] saying to me: "You know, the people who did this are probably watching." I hadn't thought much about CNN as the world's news network. But I did then. Somewhere in my brain, I thought, yeah, the guys who did this probably are watching. So is the president of France. So is the Russian president probably watching. The world is watching. And you know the Chinese are watching. I think in that moment, maybe for the first time, I began to appreciate that what I was doing was history. That this was the first draft of history, and I was a bit player. I was certainly aware that our lives were not likely to ever be the same.

AJR: Did you get that at the time? AB: I think I said it. But whether I got it is an interesting question. I think I believed it then. People ask sometimes, "How do you think you did?" I tend to be conservative in these things. I don't ever want to be ahead of the story. I felt if I had to do it again, about 30 minutes before I actually said those words – "The United States of America is under attack"--I would have said those words. I thought I was a little late to say them. Those are really hard words to say.

AJR: Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg called you a French horn in an industry of kazoos. What do you think reading that? AB: The Times piece was an extraordinarily kind and generous piece by...

AJR: An old friend? AB: No, although he's someone I've known for a long time. By a respected and talented and pretty tough writer. So you open the clips that day and you read that and you go: Wow. But honestly, the day that came out was also the day that the [Tom] Brokaw anthrax letter story broke, so it wasn't like, "Yeah, it's time to celebrate." I'll frame the Los Angeles Times piece, and on a day I'm feeling bummed out, you bet I'll probably read it. But it will probably be right next to some piece where somebody called me a jerk 10 years ago.

AJR: You keep those pieces? AB: The jerk pieces? No. If I'm completely honest, over the course of my career, I think I've gotten good press, but mostly because I'm different.

AJR: How do you think you're different? AB: Oh, man. How do I think I'm not? I'm a very unlikely network news anchor. I'm not in any sense a leading man. I don't look like a leading man. I don't sound like a leading man. I've had a cold for eight weeks. There's nothing about me, I don't think, that on the air is omnipotent. I'm just trying to walk people through something. To be perfectly honest, and I think viewers get it, I'm just trying to walk myself through it, too. Anchors are leading men. I mean, that's what they do. They're omnipotent, or at least they have been in the sort of classic network anchor news way. I think my approach is different. I think it's much more low-key. There's no attempt to be the smartest guy in the room necessarily. I'm just trying to engage viewers in a conversation. But I wish I were a leading man. I figure it would be a lot easier.... I think television is quite a risk-averse business. Maybe somebody who sounds like me, and talks to people the way I talk to people, wasn't likely to get the opportunity. So the fact that I got the opportunity is almost miraculous.

AJR: How did you get the opportunity? AB: My agent called me one day. She said these CNN guys would like to meet you. [Then one day last spring his agent called and said they needed to talk.] I said: "We need to talk good or we need to talk bad?" She said: "We need to talk interesting. CNN's going to make an offer." I said: "What's the job?" She said: "It's the job." I said: "The job?" She said: "The job." We talked that night about how to approach ABC.

AJR: Meaning what? AB: I had to be released from my contract. But I just believed that ABC, when they looked at it, would say: "You've been a hell of a soldier for us. You've done a lot of stuff for us. He's done everything we've asked him to. This is once in a lifetime. How could we stand in the way of that?"

AJR: Isn't that a bit Pollyannaish? AB: But that's exactly what happened.

AJR: You always wanted to be an anchor? AB: I don't know if I thought about it that way. But I always wanted to be a reporter. I put out the neighborhood newspaper. It's the only job I ever wanted.

AJR: Is this heady stuff? AB: What you guys have to understand is I'm new at this, too.

AJR: But you were anchoring before? AB: But I was the local news anchor in Seattle. I mean that's like one step up from being shot out of a cannon. I'm just working through some of this stuff. Right now, I don't quite get the perks. I've been working a minimum of 14 hours a day for eight weeks. Yesterday I did five hours of television. I walk out of here exhausted. I've hardly seen my wife and child in eight weeks. I'm sure that I can probably get into a very good restaurant now, but I haven't either the time or the inclination.

AJR: What do you do to unwind? AB: Not enough, apparently. I get home about midnight these days. I'll eat something. I'll futz around in my office upstairs on my computer, answer e-mails from friends. I write in my journal. Sometimes I watch replays of the show to see how it went. Sometimes not. And sometimes I'll just take a really strong belt of vodka and hope it knocks me out.

AJR: So this has been a baptism by fire? AB: People think that. If I were a 22-year-old kid, I'd say, "Yeah, that's a great point." But I'm not. To the audience I was new. But to me, I'm not. I've been me for a long time.