Suppose someone who looks like your successful, worldly-wise uncle told you, “I can show you everything in the world in 30 minutes of video.” You would jump at the chance, happy to rely on such a balanced and experienced person for your information.
That was the premise of the evening news. Unlike newspaper journalists, whose style aspires to facelessness, TV news is all about a single, authoritative face: that of the anchorman, our host for half an hour, who opens for us a window to the affairs of the world.
The title “anchorman” is an interesting one. TV is a whirlwind of images, flickering across thousands of miles, multiple cultures, and an indefinite number of contextual possibilities. The anchorman must generate enough gravity to hold the images together in a semblance of order. Otherwise, TV news spirals into sensory incoherence.
The archetypal anchorman, Walter Cronkite of CBS Evening News, was the very picture of gravitas. Besides the fact that he really looked like my uncle, he became more admired than the politicians he covered: in 1972, he was voted the most trusted man in America.
Cronkite ended every broadcast with the line, “And that’s the way it is.” His impressive appearance thus vouched for a remarkable claim: if information didn’t make it into the evening news, it didn’t really happen. Or at least, it didn’t matter. The 30 minutes of the nightly news planted the seed of the cult of celebrity.
Even more than newspapers, TV news selects information for reasons that are opaque to the viewer. The open window to the world was always bogus: there is no window, only randomly captured video. Broadcasters adhere to the ideology of news. They sometimes must submit to the primacy of the image. But their supreme duty is to act as arbiters of who and what will become famous – and infamous.
This is a form of entertainment, in a medium skilled at entertaining. Unlike their ink-stained brethren, TV journalists like Cronkite become famous themselves – become stars. The problem is how to avoid becoming another show. The critical need of TV news is to differentiate itself from Desperate Housewives.
The solution has been to script the evening news into a ritual rather than a performance. It’s less spontaneous than High Mass at the Vatican. Everything happens the same way, every time – not only in the same station but in all broadcasts, pretty much across the globe. The style of the news, broadcast edition, is ritualistic, hieratic, and universal, the better to assume the mantle of seriousness in the dispensation of fame.
It begins with the anchorman – originally, always a man, always deep-voiced, always wearing a suit. (The advent of anchorwomen belongs to the decadence of TV news. Because they tend to be relatively young and attractive, they raise the specter of Desperate Housewives.) Unfortunately, the gravitas of the normal anchorman falls far short of Cronkite levels. Props must be brought in.
Most egregious is the desk. Every anchorman has a desk behind which he sits rigidly, like a wise professor at orals, like a severe but righteous judge. In the background, beyond both desk and man, there’s usually a map of the world, to connote the far reach of the news cameras, plus random flickering images of the story at hand.
This affectation works everywhere in the world. In the US, the networks and cable stations follow it slavishly. The same is true of the Europeans, the Arabs, even the North Koreans. No nation is so anti-imperialist or iconoclastic as to force its anchormen to come out from behind their desk.
The words spoken are also ritualized. Broadcasts begin with a stilted greeting, such as a rich landowner might exchange with a peasant whose name he has forgotten. Then, on to the three stories worthy of fame for the day. Each makes for an awkward transition.
In TV news, the images tell the story. They are the real message, with which the words seldom harmonize. As video has proliferated, the point of the narrative has become more problematic. Words now get added to punctuate an image. Scripts have stopped parsing, and dribble off into impressionistic nonsense.
Increasingly, TV journalists seek to emote rather than narrate – showing sadness over a disaster or anger at injustice. But the ritualistic style of TV news was devised precisely to avoid emoting, which confuses news with drama. Anchors and journalists broken to this style visibly strain against the grain.
The musty, stilted effusions of newscasters like CNN’s Anderson Cooper (“This is America? Chaos, anger, a desperate city feeling abandoned. . .”) appear comical in their own right, and have become all too easy to parody.
From Monty Python to the Daily Show, the broadcast style of news has come under ferocious mockery. Hollywood, which views the newspaper reporter’s life as the stuff of high drama (The Pelican Brief, State of Play), has long exploited the anchorman to hilarious effect (Network, Broadcast News, The Mary Tyler Moore Show).
I don’t think it’s unfair to say TV news has become a running joke.
An explosion in competition has only made things worse. Cable news introduced a frenetic impulse to the style, with the same image repeated endlessly to no purpose, inane banter between the anchors, and a ticker of random information running at the bottom of the screen for the ADD afflicted.
Satellite newscasters like Al Jazeera have amped up the pressure to emote. YouTube, which ingests 20 hours of video every minute, has called into question not just the style but the entire enterprise of TV news. Audiences have fragmented. Desperate to retain their share, broadcasters have dedicated hours of obsessive coverage to lurid subjects like Chandra Levi and the runaway bride.
It’s hard to picture Walter Cronkite fronting for such stuff.
In fact, the anchor has failed to hold. The images, repetitive and chaotic, have taken over, giving TV news a feeling of sensory disorientation, like a patient who has suffered a stroke and can find no connection between his thoughts. Given the general mockery and the eroding business model, one might expect the style of TV news to go the way of the Shakespearean sonnet.
I wouldn’t bet on it, for a number of reasons. First is the persuasive power of the images – these can be better packaged and branded by the ritual style of the news anchor behind the professorial desk.
Al Jazeera, for example, conducted a fierce and effective video propaganda campaign against Israel’s incursion in Gaza. The station isn’t an independent business, however. It’s a toy of the emir of Qatar, who pays all the bills. If the emir had simply gathered the Gaza footage and thrown it out on YouTube, the impact of the images would have been diluted.
The same applies to the many government-owned stations in the world, and to bastard arrangements like that of the BBC. The ritual style provides a perfect structure with which to deliver, top down, the message of authority. Part of the secret of the style’s success in places like North Korea is that it is inherently aristocratic.
Finally, groups aspiring to authority also find the style congenial. The Daily Show isn’t the only impersonator of TV news: Al Qaeda’s broadcast entity, As Sahab, does the same thing. It follows the rituals of TV news as zealously as those of the Quran. The anchorman sits behind his desk, images flicker behind him, and a logo floats on a corner of the screen while a ticker of ADD terrorist information often scrolls beneath.
Why does a gang of Muslim supremacists assume a style invented by the West? I don’t pretend to know – but most of the individuals involved in As Sahab were raised under despotic governments which used the style against them. I imagine they see it as just another weapon, and they are striking back.