On a recent edition of "Larry King Live," the embittered former CBS News anchor, Dan Rather, declared repeatedly that his successor, Katie Couric, must demonstrate that she "loves the news" in order to prove truly successful in the job. Even the obsequious Mr. King had to wonder what exactly that meant. How does one love the news?
"In other words," Mr. King inquired of Mr. Rather, sounding somewhat mystified about his meaning, "you get up in the morning, you love the story? You love war stories?"
"Well, I don't love war stories," Mr. Rather replied. "Nobody loves war stories."
Mr. King seemed relieved to hear this. "Most news is bad," he correctly observed.
Mr. King may sound a bit simplistic, but as television finds itself immersed in the coverage of a bloody conflict that approximates war—though no network has dared used the word in its graphics or logos — it appears Mr. Rather has gotten it exactly wrong. The best reporters are those who hate the news.The ones we gravitate to in times of crisis are those whose palpable anger pierces their dispassionate prose, and who communicate to the audience the same hatred for bloodshed and destruction that we feel, but cannot articulate or express.
In a dissonant diatribe against journalistic passion in last Wednesday's New York Times, television critic Alessandra Stanley thanked heaven itself for the passing of the Walter Cronkite era in television news. She suggested that by injecting passion into his nightly newscast, Mr. Cronkite resembled "just another network blowhard" rather than the type she suggests we now prefer — ones who "feign objectivity" about world events. (Lyndon Johnson certainly didn't consider Mr. Cronkite a blowhard when he famously remarked, in response to a series of critical reports on the war broadcast on the CBS Evening News in 1968: "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost the country.")
But the truth is that we still gravitate most to those who, like Mr. Cronkite, look with arched skepticism at government institutions and military interventions. We don't want the bland leading the bland; we rightly reward reporters like CNN's Anderson Cooper and the top-rated anchor on television, NBC's Brian Williams, both of whom take activist roles by hammering away at waste, mismanagement, and abuse, just like Mr. Cronkite did in his day.
The latest conflict in the Middle East has put Mr. Cooper front and center once again, just as last summer's Hurricane Katrina first established him as this generation's leading prospect to inherit the mantle of Edward R. Murrow. Mr. Cooper hates the news more than anyone alive. Night after night, he devotes two hours of prime time television to his rigid, no-nonsense grilling of those in control of the world's destiny. Like Messrs. Murrow and Cronkite, Mr. Cooper shines a spotlight on the tragedies of our time. Even his muchmaligned interview with movie star Angelina Jolie devoted most of its time to starvation in Africa, a topic that gets only cursory attention from the networks' nightly newscasts.
Elsewhere on television, other reporters do an equally powerful job of showcasing their dismay over the battles raging across the Middle East. ABC's David Wright is a reporter unafraid to inject his subjectivity into his reporting. Like the best journalists, he sees no point in pretending not to care. Even CBS News's Lara Logan has worked extra hard to camouflage her sex appeal in covering the conflict; her beauty doesn't distract from the frustrations etched on her face. This war will produce no Scud Studs — as NBC's boyishly handsome Arthur Kent came to be known during the Gulf War — because the pain of this mess is too palpable, and the costs to our future too great.
"I don't for a moment suggest that the networks should stop showing film of men in combat, although I can't say I completely agree with people who think that when battle scenes are brought into the living room the hazards of war are necessarily made ‘real' to the television audience." Those words were written in 1967 by the New Yorker's then-television critic, Michael J. Arlen, about network news coverage of Vietnam in a famous essay called "The Living-Room War." Not that much has changed. We still need the help of reporters and anchors to illuminate and annotate what we see; otherwise, as Mr. Arlen noted, we are looking at "a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall." Television plays a powerful role in shaping our view of the world, but not by pictures alone.
It remains to be seen which network news correspondents will emerge from this latest military struggle as the medium's newest stars. But it seems safe to assume that whoever it is will share with the Cronkites and Murrows and Coopers a deep-seated hatred for the very events that thrust them front and center in our minds. The best television journalists are those who hate the news, and who want desperately for the death and destruction to end so that they can leave the spotlight and return safely home. Thank heavens — and Walter Cronkite — for that.