The death last week of Peter Jennings, the debonair longtime anchor for ABC’s evening news program, prompts some thoughts on the changing condition of journalism in the United States today, especially electronic journalism.
The last year has seen longtime anchors at all three major networks leave. Does this mean the passing not only of a personal era for Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, but the passing of an era in which three celebrity journalists could have such influence and power?
If so, it will not be an unwelcome development.
The term “news anchor” is commonly used only in the United States and Canada, and only in those two countries are they invested with such power and perquisites. The British Broadcasting Corporation used the term “news readers” for decades, acknowledging that the person in front of the camera was often reading a script prepared by others, or the term “newscasters.”
From the 1950s through the 1980s and beyond, “news” for most Americans was what came from one of three networks whose dominance was in some ways undergirded by federal regulation.
Success in the business tended to turn on smoothness in covering events like political conventions or disasters like presidential assassinations. Anchors sometimes became celebrities whose personas overshadowed the news they were covering.
With the rise of cable news and the Internet, especially with three competing 24-hour news channels, Americans now have many more choices as their primary news sources. Although this can lead to questionable priorities — think Aruba, Michael Jackson or Laci Peterson — this is a generally healthy development, an era of expanding news sources.
The diversity of sources means that consumers of news — citizens — must be more discriminating and discerning, sorting through a variety of sources and thinking hard to assess their reliability, integrity, point of view. This can be difficult, but also rewarding. It is seldom a good idea to rely on just one source or one version of events.
The Big Three anchors may well be replaced by three figures who build their influence and positions over time, until some commentator in 20 years refers to giants whose like we will not see again. If the recent changing of the guard leads to an era in which anchors are less influential, less celebrity-like and more businesslike, however, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.