Brown out

CNN dumps drippy Aaron Brown for whippersnapper Anderson Cooper. It might boost ratings -- but will it help the quality of TV news?

Published November 3, 2005 8:35PM (EST)

CNN's announcement Wednesday that anchor Aaron Brown is leaving the network, with Anderson Cooper taking over his time slot, might just send Brown's fans into fits of righteous rage. Or not. After all, just how passionate can devotees of the quintessentially dispassionate Brown -- the Michael Dukakis of news anchors -- get over his ouster? It may take several days for the rage index to fully register. But for now, armchair quarterbacks are apt to read the development as a Deborah Norville/Jane Pauley replay: an attractive up-and-comer unseats a beloved, established figure while network executives stand expectantly by, demographic dinero kerchinging in their eyeballs. Predictable as it is, the casting of Brown as victim to Cooper's vanquishing interloper holds a certain logic that will perturb his faithful viewers, of which there are legions. Although I am not among them, hundreds of thousands of Americans have grown to love the anchor's quirkily gem|tlich appeal.

Born in Minnesota in 1948, Brown began his career in radio, later taking his non-threatening Midwestern wryness to the Los Angeles radio market, then up to the Pacific Northwest, where he transitioned to television. Reporting and anchoring at Seattle affiliates KING-TV and KIRO-TV, something clicked in Brown. People who watched him back then say his delivery had a uniquely soothing quality, that he made you feel like you and your Labrador were cuddling up in a Pendleton blanket, listening to the foghorns on Puget Sound. But as the years went on and Brown moved up to reporting and weekend anchoring duties at ABC News, the comforting presence could seem downright lulling. It was as if he had mistaken phlegmaticism for professionalism, ponderousness for gravitas. Even Brown's erstwhile ABC colleague Brit Hume, that droopy Eeyore of newscasters, appeared hyperkinetic by comparison. After he came to CNN in 2001, no matter how fastidiously Brown and his network handlers tried to cultivate his image as a reporter in the venerated old-school mold, the persona never quite gelled. A whiff of calculation always hung over his cozy, coffee-sipping shtick, as if he knew darn well he was playing the role of counter-programmer: a lovably, benignly bookish alternative to TV news' armies of square-jawed hunks.

For his part, ascendant whippersnapper Anderson Cooper is cut neither from Jennings' cloth nor Brown's, but is a new breed of cyber-savvy on-air presence whose bearing is casual but refreshingly un-cheesy. And then there are those GQ looks: a pleasantly disorienting juxtaposition of boyish face and prematurely graying hair, capturing in a single visage the physiognomies of both youth and maturity. In the blogosphere, Web surfers who had dismissed Aaron Brown as "that whiny, Ichabod Crane-looking dude who reads newspapers at the end of his show" hailed Cooper as "hip and hot," and even admitted, with shameless Gen X/Y flippancy: "If it wasn't for Anderson, I probably would have slept through the war in Iraq." As demonstrated by his widely lauded coverage of Hurricane Katrina, Cooper also proved he isn't afraid to wear his heart on his shirtsleeve, a trait that endears him to viewers who want their newsmen sensitive as well as studly. In short, Cooper is a helluva package deal, far more palatable than NBC's gravelly-voiced, raccoon-eyed Brian Williams, Fox News' smarmy Shepard Smith, CBS' kindly but tired-looking Bob Schieffer, and any of the contenders for Jennings' vacated throne at ABC, with the possible exception of the spunky Elizabeth Vargas. True, Cooper can get a bit gushy, and he's prone to inserting himself too prominently into stories, but he's young, only 38, and experience will temper his excesses. In the meantime, CNN executives weighing Cooper vs. Aaron Brown apparently concluded that it's easier to tame a spitfire than invigorate a corpse.

It is important to note, however, that whatever your loyalties, neither Cooper nor Brown is television news' savior, nor its scourge; the dichotomy between the two is one of style and energy level, not of substance, and the choice of Cooper over Brown doesn't address the deeper problems facing TV news. For a small -- and strange -- example of that, look no further than last Sunday's "60 Minutes," during which correspondent Steve Kroft interviewed Britain's Prince Charles in advance of the prince's official visit to the United States. The prince's communications staff had explicitly forbidden Kroft to ask Charles personal questions: no "How does it feel to finally be married to Camilla?" or "Have you met Prince William's new girlfriend?" or "What do you make of Prince Harry's predilection for smoking pot and wearing swastika armbands?"

At first, these prohibitions seemed to presage a quid pro quo: access to the prince in exchange for a softball interview. But lo and behold, as the sit-down unfolded, it proved surprisingly, even shockingly, substantive. How many of us in America know anything of the prince beyond his standard portrayal as a kilt-wearing, slightly daft eccentric who wished to be reincarnated as a tampon? Kroft introduced us not to this caricature, but to a man who has founded 14 charities, to which he donates more than $200 million a year; who has built a village called Poundbury in the South of England, dedicated to the ideals of recyclable materials and pedestrian-friendly public spaces; who has created a company that distributes high-quality organic produce and meats; and who has grown gravely preoccupied in recent years with the ways in which technological progress has sapped our collective humanity and supplanted it with the ephemeral values of "a throwaway society."

It is disturbing indeed that it took a kind of censorship -- the restrictions placed upon what Kroft could ask the prince -- to produce this thoughtful profile of a thoughtful man. Imagine how the segment might have turned out if Kroft or, God forbid, Barbara Walters had been allowed to conduct the interview carte blanche. The piece would have revolved around trying to make Charles cry, and "Despite the problems you and Diana had, do you ever miss her?" and "Your Royal Highness, what kind of tree would you be?" Certainly, I'm not advocating for censorious policing -- by media handlers, the FCC, Congress or any other entity -- to produce worthy journalism. Nor will Aaron Brown getting canned or Anderson Cooper getting promoted bring about the radical reexamination that must take place if we are ever to see more coverage of substance and less of pablum. What we need, desperately, is more good judgment and less bad taste; more broadcasters like the late Fred Friendly and fewer like current CBS panderer-in-chief Les Moonves. Above all, we need the people in power within media conglomerates to believe deep down that if they build it -- thoughtful, quality programming -- we, the viewers, will come.

By Richard Speer

A former local television news anchor, reporter and writer, Richard Speer worked at network affiliates including those in Orlando, Fla.; Jackson, Miss.; and Fayetteville, Ark. He is the author of "Matt Lamb: The Art of Success" (Wiley, 2005).

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