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The news anchor: reporter or celebrity?

Tom Bettag

Former executive producer, Nightline, CBS Evening News

Tom Bettag

Tell me a little bit about the role of anchorperson. …

Well, there are anchors, and there are anchors. The classic anchor is somebody who earned his or her stripes by being out in the field, knowing everything that there is to know in the course of that, and what we've just seen with these people who have been on the air for 20 years -- be it [Peter] Jennings, [Tom] Brokaw, [Dan] Rather, [Ted] Koppel -- are people who have covered more stories than anybody else in the organization. They are truly the most experienced, smartest people. I mean, Dan Rather was there when Kennedy was shot. Dan Rather was there in Vietnam. Dan Rather was there in Watergate -- has all of that level of experience, and in that sense, the anchor is just the smartest, most experienced person in the shop.

That becomes very important when suddenly something comes out of the blue like a 9/11, and we were blessed that we had these people who had been there for 20 years. ... That voice of experience is ultimately what the anchor is.

I got into television in trying to figure out, is this a fit for a person who believed in news? My old editorial page editor [was] saying, "Remember how the country turned to [Walter] Cronkite when Kennedy was shot?" We had no president of the United States. All you had were Cronkite and [Chet] Huntley-[David] Brinkley. Those people held this nation together, and I think that is the ultimate role of the anchor. ...

Ted Koppel

Former anchor, Nightline

Ted Koppel

Whether you've set out to become this or not, you became a celebrity journalist, well known by Americans throughout the country and around the world. So give me an example of something [where] being a celebrity journalist actually was good in a way, and give me something where it was a pain.

Look, it helps all the time in that if I want to get through to someone on the phone, I can get through to someone on the phone. If I ask someone as a personal favor, "Would you please do this interview?," more often than not they will do it. There is no question that being well known helps in reaching people. …

In terms of the downside, there are very few downsides to it. If my wife and I are trying to have a quiet evening at a restaurant, if it's in our own neighborhood, people leave us alone. Sometimes when we're off on vacation, or if we go off on a cruise or something like that, people feel that they own a piece of you, and they have a right to intrude at any time. By and large, if you just give them 30 seconds, they'll go away and leave you alone. ... Every once in a while there's an idiot out there, but that's a small price to pay.

Dan Rather

Former anchor, CBS Evening News

Dan Rather

Now, I guess what I'm asking you to do is step back for a minute and not just look at yourself but the whole industry, your peers. There was a way, starting ... in the early '80s, that news on-camera people became stars.

Well, long before the 1980s, [news anchors] became stars: [Chet] Huntley, [David] Brinkley, beginning in the late 1950s; Walter Cronkite on through the '60s and '70s. The idea that news people as stars didn't emerge until the 1980s is not true.

But salaries took off astronomically.

Salaries took off astronomically; however, as early as the 1960s -- keeping in mind that a dollar in 1960 was not what a dollar was in 1980 -- the major anchors at major network newscasts were extremely well-paid. ... Now, it's true when we got to the '80s that the pay got to be better and, even discounting for inflation in 1960 dollars, got to be great. …

There's no question that it was not in the best interest of quality journalism [to have] this development of a star system. ... But it's easy to overgeneralize. You have to look at individual cases. There are people today who are making a lot of money and whose names are in the newspapers every day, who I know are coming in the morning and making telephone calls, that are trying very hard and succeed, to no small degree, to keep themselves connected to the news. Now, if your point is that it's easier now than it ever has been just to take the money, take the celebrityhood, take the glory -- if you want to put it that way -- and come in and read the news, it's easier to do that today than it's ever been. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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