As the drum roll for war against Iraq continues, Americans are left pondering some difficult questions. When will the conflict begin? How many troops will be involved? And, most importantly, who will be the nation’s next Scud Stud?
If the Bush administration’s handling of this new war-to-be gives it that Hollywood sequel feel, then it follows that news coverage of it will be as familiar as the theme song from “Friends.”
Especially in the last five to 10 years, cable news networks have turned media personalities into superstars. Quality journalism probably isn’t as important anymore as dashing good looks and a warm smile; few viewers can imagine someone like Walter Cronkite reading the evening news in place of stately, handsome Tom Brokaw. Not that Dan Rather is exactly a spring chicken, but you get the point.
The same goes for female anchors, too. Few homely or otherwise unglamorous women fill the airwaves on CNN and its cable counterparts; instead, there are stunning ones like Chris Jansing of MSNBC and Kelly Wallace of CNN. Greta van Susteren, formerly of CNN and now of Fox News, made a splash earlier this year after announcing she had plastic surgery to make herself look younger. And everyone knows what MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield did with her hair.
As we march toward another war in the Middle East, cute anchors and reporters appear to be laying their claims in an effort to be the next Big Bad Baghdad Daddy or Sarin Sweetheart.
One thing these numerous and mostly nameless cable journalists have in common is their trademarks. John Seigenthaler has his leather bomber jacket. Banfield, the original Abaya Baby, has her black glasses and neo-punk coiff. Wolf Blitzer has his beard.
Through these signature traits, journalists risk becoming icons – generally a bad thing for people who are supposed to deliver the news unbiased and unfettered.
Most of us probably have little recollection of Arthur Kent, the sexy NBC Gulf War correspondent – but most of us were just kids then. (Actually, that’s probably not the reason.) The point is that the original Scud Stud now lingers on the History Channel, hosting the good, but little-watched, series “History’s Mysteries.” He worked for NBC for years and later CNN. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and he’s now lingering on premium cable in an extremely niche market.
Kent is a serious journalist who made a name for himself covering some of the most important political events of the 1990s, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the conflict in Bosnia and the Gulf War. But his image and celebrity status made it hard for the public to take him seriously as a newsman (he also sued NBC and ended up in a lengthy legal dispute, which may have also had something to do with it). The same could very well come true for wannabe celebrity journalists like Seigenthaler and Dan Abrams, who are good newspeople but vulnerable to typecasting.
This is bad news for journalism and for the public. How are celebrity journalists to deliver the news without any pretense of bias? The very nature of celebrity means that those people must cultivate an image, and it is hard, if not impossible, to do that and maintain your journalistic integrity.
Watch these up-and-coming reporters and anchors in the next few months. Look out for the ones who will become famous fast and then be forgotten about just as quickly.
The most left-wing SNL ever
Been watching TV lately? If you have, you’ve probably seen the familiar mug of former Vice President Al Gore. He made his first mainstream TV appearance a few weeks ago on The Late Show with David Letterman, who proclaimed that Gore has not only slimmed down but “gotten funnier” since he lost (but didn’t really lose) to President Bush. And he was on Hardball last night. And he hosts Saturday Night Live this week with – get this – musical guest Phish. Welcome back, big guy.