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TV news anchors reveal their frailties

A humanizing time for ABC's Jennings, CBS' Rather
/ Source: The Associated Press

TV anchormen are human after all.

This should come as news to no one. But lately it’s been an ongoing story at the Big Three evening newscasts.

In November, Dan Rather announced he was leaving the “CBS Evening News” anchor desk after 24 years radiating all-too-human traits considered wrong for an anchor: He was sometimes sentimental. Testy. Corny, with those down-home Ratherisms. Prone to memorable mishaps. And — some of his critics insisted — he was brazenly left-wing.

Even so, the end was triggered not by Rather’s performance on the “Evening News,” but by his role last September in a bungled scoop for “60 Minutes Wednesday” (where the 73-year-old Rather now appears as a full-time correspondent).

“I made a mistake,” he told viewers when the expose on President Bush’s military service was falling apart. For Rather, it was a torturous admission of journalistic lapses seldom seen in his career: “I didn’t dig hard enough, long enough, didn’t ask enough of the right questions.”

Of course, to err is human. So is getting sick. But viewers count on the Big Three anchormen not only to be error-free but also exempt from any physical infirmity.

That’s why Peter Jennings shocked the public with the news of his lung cancer. Flash! Whatever his polish and smarts, this guy is painfully human.

Jennings: 'Good days and bad'The solo anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight” for 22 years, Jennings is the last of a troika that was locked in place in the early 1980s. With Rather’s departure a month ago and Tom Brokaw’s long-planned retirement last December from “NBC Nightly News,” Jennings represented the sort of stability neither of his rival newscasts could boast. He was eager to make the most of it and reclaim the ratings crown from first-place “Nightly News.”

Now this.

“There will be good days and bad,” Jennings said last week in a scratchy voice that sounded only distantly like his, during a taped statement on “World News Tonight” (Elizabeth Vargas was filling in as anchor).

Ahead for him: a chemotherapy regimen and, when he’s up to it, continued duty anchoring the newscast.

“Almost 10 million Americans are already living with cancer,” he pointed out.

He even delivered a wry joke at his own expense, acknowledging the show-biz part of his job: “I wonder if other men and woman ask their doctors right away, ‘OK, Doc, when does the hair go?”’

Such raw, on-the-job contact with mortality is a cruel blow for this great newsman. Since his first, short-lived hitch as ABC’s evening news anchor in the 1960s, Jennings has exemplified panache and indefatigability. Now he is obliged to speak of good days and bad.

For decades the face of ABC News, Jennings at 66 has been handed another, far bigger task: battling his cancer. And now tradition-bound viewers will have to redefine their relationship with him. Can they accept him as someone other than an always available, unflappable explainer in the model of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and — at least until recently — himself?

And since he raised the issue: Will viewers accept his hair loss, when and if that happens?

Hair has never been a problem for Dan Rather. Other things have.

An 'extreme' Rather?In an arch yet affectionate tribute last November on public radio’s “On the Media,” host Brooke Gladstone hailed Rather as “the first and only extreme anchor in network news.” She called him “emotional, excitable, occasionally obnoxious” and “a bit of a loon,” but believable at the anchor desk because he held nothing back: “Rather, consciously or not, goes with full disclosure.”

Hostage to his human quirks, he could never quite be how an anchor was meant to be — at least according to the custom of network news, whose integrity Rather’s faithful critics said he compromised.

Gladstone disagrees. “If anything sinks that once-great institution,” she declared, “it won’t be leftyness or even craziness. It’ll be cowardice.”

This is certainly no time for cowardice as the three evening newscasts (whose sizable but steadily eroding audience now totals 30 million viewers) forge a future for themselves, each with changes at the top.

Brian Williams smoothly took the baton from Brokaw, amid humanizing hype for his NASCAR devotion. CBS veteran Bob Schieffer is temping at the “Evening News” while network bosses try to revolutionize its age-old “voice of God” anchor setup.

And at ABC, Peter Jennings, whether on-camera or off-, is breaking this story as he fights to get better: There are things in life even more urgent than the news.