NEW YORK - An anchor is a dead weight.
This is what I tell my broadcast news students on the first day of class, after I've asked them their ambitions and a predictable percentage have told me that their goal in life is essentially to read headlines and leads written by others on television each evening, wearing power suits with power hair and in full makeup.
They are wasting their own time and their parents' money studying journalism, I tell them, only half in jest. They should go instead to a modeling school, or take acting, voice and diction lessons. Is there another career path besides modeling that so emblematizes the height of American narcissism today?
Brian Williams, an amiable and competent enough individual, has been anointed heir to the ergonomic anchor throne of NBC's longtime evening news reader, Tom Brokaw, who recently announced he will retire in two years. Mr. Williams told an interviewer that it has been his ambition since the age of 6 to be an anchor.
Network anchors, contrary to the objective journalists' model, have become true insiders. They dine at the White House, fly first-class, mingle and mix with the mighty and the well-placed. The potential for conflict and compromise in those relationships cannot be ignored. They are also, to be sure, millionaire public figures themselves, indebted in some measure to the corporate and political cultures that, on one hand, support them financially or with information, and on the other, are the very subjects on which they must report.
A certain cult of personality (Walter Cronkite's avuncularity; Huntley-Brinkley's deadpan post-vaudevillian buddy act; Peter Jennings' Canadian-lilted urbanity; Dan Rather's Texas turns of phrase; Mr. Brokaw's boy-next-door charm) was always a given. Comforting has become as much the anchor's job as reporting.
Today's anchors have their own resumes.
Mr. Rather earned his fame via some daring reporting during a Texas hurricane, a feistiness toward Presidents Nixon and Bush the Elder (when the latter was vice president) and his persistent placing of himself at the center of the action, whatever, and wherever, it may be. Mr. Jennings spent his early network years as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Lebanon before ascending to the evening throne. Mr. Brokaw came up from morning host duties, but he has covered his share of major national and international stories and election campaigns.
None of the three, to my knowledge, has ever disclosed publicly, however, that it had been his ambition from first grade to be an anchor.
Brian Williams may yet turn out to be a sterling news reader and interviewer. He reads questions prepared by producers and writers as well as anyone can, and presumably even contributes some of his own.
In truth, however, what most likely recommended him to his employers for promotion was not his resume, or even his journalistic instincts or insights, so much as the way he looks and sounds on TV - youthful, handsome, with the square jaw, good teeth and neatly groomed hair. He looks good in suits, his voice is pleasant, and he smiles easily. The camera, as they say in the trade, likes him.
In about two years, he will become the primary news source for a very large percentage of Americans. Other network casting directors are likely to replace their own aging anchors with Williams clones in their tireless quest for the younger, more easily star-struck, advertiser-friendly viewers.
Here's the rub: Given broadcast and cable news executives' determination to charm - at the possible expense of informing - their audiences, and with fewer and fewer Americans reading newspapers every year, how will the viewing public ever get an honest and full picture of our world that will enable them to make the best possible choices and decisions to ensure that the republic and its elected officials do the right things?
Daniel Meltzer, a former network news writer and editor, teaches journalism at New York University.