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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Network Anchors Pull Up Anchors

March 07, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The only surprise about the recent overthrow of Ferdinand E. Marcos--the tyrannical Philippines president who was driven from power last month and supplanted by Corazon Aquino--was that Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings weren't there to see him fall.

Network anchors are now traveling salesmen.

It's true that the Big Three consider themselves reporters on assignment, and they've covered their share of stories. But they are hitting the road at the drop of a ratings point these days, aiming to sell themselves and their newscasts.

Get a load of their most recent travels:

ABC's Jennings to Hiroshima and Moscow, NBC's Brokaw to Argentina and CBS' Rather to Boston and the farm belt. Jennings and Brokaw to Manila. Jennings and Rather to Paris. Jennings, Rather and Brokaw to Mexico City, Washington, Houston and Geneva.

TV is a portable stage. It performed remarkably in beaming the Philippines upheaval into our homes and giving America box seats to the kind of historic political turnabout that usually unfolds outside our view.

Fortunately, no network anchors were in Manila to botch the extraordinary coverage of the three-day crisis leading to the hurried exit of Marcos.

Oh, Tom Brokaw did anchor the "NBC Nightly News" and Peter Jennings did anchor ABC's "World News Tonight" from Manila during the earlier turbulent and fraudulent Philippine election that hastened Marcos' downfall. That was bad enough. Both anchors were merely cosmetic appendages, rushed in for a couple of days to advertise their products, and then whisked back to New York.

One of the most memorable pictures on NBC during that earlier sales trip was a long shot of Brokaw interviewing Marcos, two men on an otherwise bare set, seeming to face each other as equals. And for an instant it was hard knowing who was interviewing whom.

No one could blame Brokaw for not returning to Manila to bury the Marcos regime and instead hopping over to Washington for the inquiry into the Challenger explosion. Give this guy a break. Only the month before, Brokaw had spent a week anchoring "Nightly News" from Argentina.

Even NBC's "Today" was not in Manila, having only recently returned from a week in Latin America, where Bryant Gumbel one morning interviewed Marcos from Rio.

On the other hand, Jennings and Rather had little choice about missing the Philippines transition of power. While Marcos was falling, Jennings was introducing "World News Tonight" from Moscow, where he was spending the week covering the 27th Communist Party Congress. And Rather had taken "The CBS Evening News" into the Texas and South Dakota hinterlands to cover the nation's farm crisis.

"There's trouble on the land," said the plaid-shirted Rather, planting a foot on a hay cube. He wasn't talking about the Philippines.

It did seem that the network anchors spent the week being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jennings having to introduce Marcos coverage from Moscow and Rather awkwardly trying to ring in the Aquino era from Texas? Even Ted Koppel, who went to Manila for ABC's "Nightline," got hung up and had to anchor the show from Hong Kong one night before moving on to the Philippines.

Because Jennings and Koppel were both abroad, moreover, ABC had to fall back on David Brinkley to host its post-speech coverage of President Reagan's televised defense budget address. Hence, ABC had to make a public apology for Brinkley allowing Soviet spokesman Vladimir Pozner too much scope in replying to Reagan.

That can happen when anchors are deployed like chess pieces in quarterly ratings sweeps that determine the advertising rates charged by most stations.

The travel becomes a form of theater. It's not that other correspondents couldn't be found to do at least as good a job of reporting (Jennings has had vast experience as a foreign correspondent, but not in the Soviet Union). It's only that no one can better promote their respective newscasts than the Big Three.

The networks are on the right track, with the wrong people. It makes good news sense for them to continue devoting large chunks of newscasts to a single significant story, as ABC did with the Communist Party Congress and especially as CBS did with the farms.

Leave the salesmen out of it, though.

The major problem with traveling anchors is that they overshadow what they report, just as Walter Cronkite used to complain that his fame got in the way when he tried cover a story like any other reporter.

That is why a countrified Rather speaking from the farm belt tends to be a distraction, with the very charisma he is paid to project as an anchor interfering with his performance as a reporter.

Traveling anchors add nothing except their faces. Better they be glamorous at home instead of on the road.

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