Of news anchors and journalism

I follow current stories about the press because I study the nineteenth-century press. I’m saddened every time a newspaper folds, which happens more and more these days. I follow network television ratings–NBC, try to aim for something more than viewers; you’ve sunk so low that you’ve got nothing to lose here–because I’m interested in how and what kinds of stories we consume. I think the press is a vital voice documenting stories of ordinary life that otherwise would remain untold. I’m not talking about what masquerades as press on so many cable TV networks, mind you. I dislike cable news talk shows on principle–they’re rarely about telling stories.

In the past week, Ann Curry has been carefully, but relentlessly moved off the Today show and Anderson Cooper has announced he is gay, which apparently was the least well kept secret in broadcast journalism. As one CNN official said, “Our operating assumption […] was that anybody who cared, already knew, and that most people didn’t care.” Cooper’s announcement, made via an email posted to Andrew Sullivan’s blog, is a study in what it means to be a broadcast journalist. His personal life didn’t need to be public because it did serve the stories he wanted to tell about the people and places he was reporting on and from. His rationale for going public, and the conversational medium he chose to make his sexual orientation publicly known, is of a piece with the thoughtful reporting we’ve come to respect from Cooper. In the long run, I won’t remember Cooper because he’s gay; I’ll remember him because CNN had to order him to go home after Katrina. He wouldn’t leave because he refused to let us, as a nation, turn our eyes away. Indeed, Cooper’s statement says volumes more about what we should expect from broadcast journalism than it does about his sexual orientation.

Ann Curry’s story is the other side of the same coin. Again, I don’t watch morning news TV. I know the Today show from my parents watching habits, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But I remember Ann Curry as the one serious, smart part of the show. If you wanted to know what was going on in the world, Curry would be the one telling you that story while the rest of the show did cartwheels or celebrity interviews. I didn’t know that she’d been moved to the co-host spot or that Today, because it’s on NBC, was the last bastion of good ratings for that network. (Seriously, NBC, stop trying to be who you were circa 1996; oh, and get your people to stop talking.) Every news article or commentary about the situation praises Curry for being a serious journalist, adept at reporting stories. So, I guess it’s no surprise that she’s not good at fluff pieces on cooking. I like to cook as much as the next person, but NBC, guess what, a whole sexual revolution happened since 1960. The female co-host doesn’t need to be the one doing the light segments. If you wanted to give Curry the co-host gig to prevent her from going elsewhere, then you were going to have to change the format. It’s a pretty simple equation. I put these two disparate news stories together because I think they both speak to how journalist see their job–telling the stories of people who are otherwise voiceless, directing our attention, and reporting with integrity–and how networks see journalists–cartwheel turning, dog and pony show performers. Admittedly, NBC is the worst of the bunch here. And I may still not have forgiven them for Conan. (I watch Dave, myself, but it was still dirty to the core.) Gender aside–and Curry’s ousting is all about how NBC sees it’s female news anchors–I think we, as a society, should laud journalists who report the news with integrity.

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