Dan and Connie unite nightly in the public eye: Can this marriage behave?

June 01, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Just as all the chatter over the "Billary" Clinton marriage is starting to seem old, armchair analysts get a newer and equally public relationship to chew on today as Dan Rather and Connie Chung start spending their weeknights together.

Unlike the Clintons, they're not actually married -- to each other, that is -- but when CBS announced earlier this month that Ms. Chung would join Mr. Rather as co-anchor of the evening newscast, the metaphors were marital: There were hugs, kisses, talk of chemistry, predictions of longevity and a quip by Ms. Chung that it would be like having one husband in the office and one at home.

It's an apt metaphor, says WJZ-Channel 13 anchorwoman Denise Koch.

"Al and I have always joked we each have two marriages in our lives," she says, referring to co-anchor Al Sanders, with whom she shares an on-air ease apparently so convincing that people ask if they're married in real life as well. "We spend nine to 10 hours a day together in a little room. If you like the person -- and thank God I do -- it's a blessing. You can probably fake it if you're really good at it . . . but some people just don't have that chemistry."

Although she'll be occupied with her own broadcast at 6:30 p.m. when Ms. Chung and Mr. Rather debut (locally, on WBAL-Channel 11), Ms. Koch hopes to watch a tape of this newest media coupling. She certainly isn't the only one, both in and out of the TV industry, who will be tuning in and hoping to glean early signs of how the intense Mr. Rather and the engaging Ms. Chung relate to one another.

Why the fascination? For one thing, there's the issue of whether this pairing will work when others before it have failed. Many point to the strained Barbara Walters-Harry Reasoner co-anchoring on ABC from 1976 until their rather merciful "divorce" two years later. And, recently, networks have physically separated not-quite-simpatico anchors, but given them joint custody of their show: CNN several years ago, for example, split up feuding news anchors Bernard Shaw and Catherine Crier by putting him in Washington and her in Atlanta, while "Primetime Live" sent Sam Donaldson back to Washington and kept Diane Sawyer in New York.

Watching these men and women relate with each other, and not always successfully, can be fascinating to viewers because of the parallels we draw to our own lives, two psychologists say.

"They represent all of us who work with opposite-gender colleagues. What's our comfort level with that?" says Shirley Glass, an Owings Mills psychologist who specializes in couples counseling. "We want them to be friendly, but not too friendly. People aren't sure where the boundaries need to be drawn."

"People read [things] into other people's relationships all the time," says Tom Wright, director of clinical psychology training at Catholic University in Washington. "And [the co-anchor role] relates to a wider range of relationships."

Dr. Glass and Dr. Wright perhaps have special insight on the subject: They practice together, jointly counseling clients and presenting their research findings at professional meetings. Their working relationship dates back to 1975, when he was her dissertation adviser, and they started a psychology practice together in 1982.

"It does become in some ways like a marriage -- you learn a lot of things about each other," says Dr. Glass. "You accept things about each other or tensions flare up occasionally, but ultimately what it gets down to is the level of mutual respect between the two of you."

That's important in TV anchor relationships as well, agrees Baltimore anchorwoman Sally Thorner,who left WMAR-Channel 2 in November for a new position at rival WJZ that begins in December. (A no-compete clause in her WMAR contract required that she spend a year off the air.)

"It certainly makes it nicer if you like the person you're sitting next to," she says. "I don't necessarily think it's important to be friends, but I really think it's important to respect each other."

Ms. Thorner has had numerous co-anchors during her career -- including four in Baltimore alone -- and believes she meshed better with some than others. But, as a professional, you're expected to help present a united front, she says.

"It's like when you have a cold -- no one cares if you have a cold," Ms. Thorner says.

Media consultant Frank Magid agrees anchors need not be compatible off-screen to seem that way on-screen.

"The relationship has to be one that is seen as a good relationship," says Mr. Magid, whose 35-year-old consulting firm advises 140 TV clients here and abroad on issues such as anchor selection. "But there's a difference between perceived liking and actual liking. There have been anchors who almost despise each other, but to the outside world they appear to like each other a great deal."

The consensus seems to be that Mr. Rather and Ms. Chung do like each other -- they've known one another for 22 years, since Ms. Chung's first stint at CBS.

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