There may have been a time -- long before the words "eyewitness" or "chopper" ever became associated with TV news -- when the job of delivering the events of the day to viewers at home had real dignity and gravitas, when nothing seemed nobler than sitting behind a news desk, reading from a teleprompter.
If such a time did exist, it surely came before the mid-1970s, when the focus of the evening news began its shift from news to personality. In 1970, Ted Knight's buffonish Ted Baxter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" caught the beginning of this trend with the first lampoon of the narcissistic newsreader. When Walter Cronkite put in a guest appearance on the show in 1974, he said, drily, that "every once in a while I think guys in our business need something to jog us out of being overdignified." Just a year later on "Saturday Night Live," Chevy Chase began satirizing the vanity of the evening news anchor with his line "Good evening, I'm Chevy Chase and you're not," on "Weekend Update." (It's no wonder, then, that Will Ferrell's new movie "Anchorman" is set in the 1970s.) News anchors have been a comic staple ever since, from Kent Brockman of "The Simpsons" to Jon Stewart on the "Daily Show."
But why are newscasters -- local newscasters, in particular -- such easy targets? Like anyone else who appears before the camera, they appear to take themselves too seriously. Compounding that problem is the habit of most newscasters to try desperately to strike an everyman pose, making them even more subject to ridicule. Why? Because we tend to strongly suspect that they're not, in fact, everymen and everywomen. Instead, we tend to suspect they're mostly well-compensated, wildly ambitious, slightly out-of-control type A personalities. When they attempt to seem natural -- just like us -- they seem even more cartoonish, more like Ted Baxter, and they can frequently be more hilarious than anything that has appeared on "Weekend Update" in a long time.
That's part of what makes watching them get caught off guard so satisfying: For a brief moment, we get to witness them as real people and not acting the way they think real people behave. There's nothing overtly funny about the clip of Dan Rather from the 1968 Democratic Convention. But it is enjoyable witnessing the pluck of the earnest young Rather, dusting himself off after getting a thrashing -- especially now, when the Rather we're used to has seemed as focus-grouped and media savvy as a sitcom star. The joy is not in seeing these newscasters screw up, but in seeing their personalities shine through when caught in a moment of surprise. And, OK, it's also thrilling to watch them screw up: Just try to watch the clip of the serious young reporter confronted by a streaker without laughing. We dare you. So, on the next page, we give you our 10 Best Bootleg News Clips, starring Katie, Shepherd and Dan, Freudian slips, attacking reptiles -- and one less one-of-a-kind object in the world.
No. 1: The bomb
Who: Dawn Scott, KIRO CBS 7 (Seattle)
When: May 2003
What: During a Very Serious live introduction to a recorded report about a local bomb threat, Scott loses her mannered newswoman shtick thanks to a masked streaker.
No. 2: Low blow
Who: Shepherd Smith, Fox News
When: Nov. 4, 2002
What: Talking about J.Lo's then-hit, "Jenny From the Block," Smith somehow stumbles into saying the people in her old neighborhood "are more likely to give her a curve job than a blow jo... block party." Watch as he turns from sheepish to coy, saying, "Sorry about that slip-up there. I don't know how it happened. But it won't happen again."
No. 3: Thug life
Who: Dan Rather, CBS News
When: Aug. 27, 1968
What: A very young, very earnest version of the TV newsman gets trounced by security guards on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago while the cameras roll. Reporting back to Walter Cronkite, whose outraged voice you hear in the clip, Rather says, "I'm sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that."
No. 4: "I'll sue you, biatch!"
Who: Adam Landau, WJXT Eyewitness News 4 (Jacksonville, Fla.)
When: June 1997
What: Appearing live on the scene for a report about a new noise ordinance, young reporter Landau is attacked by a very noisy bystander, who taunts him to "put that on the news."
No. 5: Diced
Who: Allan Chernoff, CNNfn
When: Nov. 13, 2003
What: Before this interview, Andrew Dice Clay apparently promised producers not to swear on the show -- a promise he breaks again, and again, and again. For some reason, he's particularly enraged when Chernoff asks him about running a gym during a break from the comedy circuit. "Running a gym? Where did you get -- you're supposed to be a news guy. Where are you getting your fucking information? I come on CNN, and the guy don't even know what he's talking about."
No. 6: Leaping lizards
Who: Michael Scott, KXAS NBC 5 (Dallas-Fort Worth)
When: Aug. 9, 2002
What: During a segment on "DFW Today" to promote the Dallas Museum of Natural History, anchorman Scott gets a surprise visit from a gecko. He apparently can't wait until this clip disappears: Pranksters at the station reportedly left 30 plastic geckos on his desk after the segment aired.
No. 7: Perky
Who: "Today," NBC
When: Aug. 2, 2001
What: As the camera does its daily pan across the Rockefeller Center crowd, a young woman flashes the camera, apparently at the urging of New York radio shock-jocks Opie and Antony, who paid her $1,000 for the stunt. Katie Couric, watching from inside, appears to be the only one to notice.
No. 8: "Technical difficulty"
Who: Name unknown (Ontario, Canada)
When: April 2004
What: A live reporter's slip-up is explained away as a "technical difficulty."
No. 9: "One of a kind"
Who: Chris Pirillo, TechTV
When: Dec. 26, 2002
What: Handling a precious and exceedingly rare Edison Record device, the guest on this TechTV special "Call for Help-a-thon" turns out to be quite the butterfingers.
No. 10: "What does that mean?"
Who: Bill Bonds, Channel 7 Action News (Detroit)
When: Early '80s
What: Four very grainy, poorly recorded minutes of raw tape showing Detroit-area legend Bonds trying to record a 30-second promo for that night's news. Bonds was famous for often appearing ... out of it on the evening news, but he was nonetheless the first Detroit anchorman to win a million-dollar contract. Here, his compassion for the subjects of his story practically bleeds through the screen.