Man Without Qualities

Thursday, March 07, 2002

Those Fluctuations In The Skin-to-Credibility Equation

What does ABC’s move to replace Ted Koppel with David Letterman say about fluctuations in the skin-to-credibility equation used to structure network news? Put another way, it should be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that there is not enough quality skin revealed on network news – and Koppel and his ilk are definitely a big part of the problem.

A fine understanding on the parts of those reporting the story that their, personal, lives and positions could be directly affected by the matters they are reporting probably has a lot to do with the size of the kerfluffle arising from the whole affair.

But the reporting also obscures that basic question of why people as physically unattractive as Koppel, Jennings, Rather and other old fogies still have such a literally visible presence in the survival-of-the-cutest jungle of modern television journalism.

At first it seems odd that a “head” has anything substantive to do with selecting the content of news he or she presents. Does a typesetter (if there still are such people) have anything substantive to say about what goes into a newspaper? Why aren’t the “heads” just a specialized kind of actor or actress, skilled at the authoritative and slightly hysterical tone characteristic of American newscasters, but presenting material prepared off screen by other, more articulate, uglier people. Basic principles of specialization of labor suggest such divided roles.

But that has never been the case. It appears that television news audiences have valued – or at least have been thought to have valued – having the person reading the news actually determine what is read, and not just how it is read. Many ancient polls verified that Walter Cronkite was the “most trusted man in America”, and, to a news division, a trusting audience is money in the bank. Mr. Cronkite’s reputation was largely based on his truly impressive ability to pronounce of the word “billions,” when that was still real money, an ability he wielded gloriously until it was eclipsed by Carl Sagan’s inflationary “billions and billions,” a development which may have influenced Mr. Cronkite’s decision to largely withdraw from public view.

The networks have labored mightily to create the impression that the structure of their news divisions has continued essentially unchanged, an apparent constancy designed to rival the austere permanence of the pyramids of Giza. Younger, often blonder, women, such Mses. Sawyer and Couric, were ratcheted onto the original chassis with full and obligatory – if never believable - denials that their appearance and sex had anything to do with the matter. But the unstated message that the lead “head” determines the agenda has been weakening. In the case of Ms. Couric and some others, it is scarcely there at all – notwithstanding her gigantic compensation. In general, the increasing dominance of women newscasters seems to be correlated to a gradual reversion to the division of labor suggested by basic economic principles discussed above. It may be that the networks have been themselves sexist here, but more likely they are merely exploiting the ambient sexism of the society. They would likely prefer to eliminate expensive dinosaurs such as Koppel and Rather entirely.

But the pace of change is accelerating, and the change itself is becoming more visible. Greta Van Susteran seems to have been required to undergo a serious facelift to accommodate here recent move to FoxNews. Then there was the whole Paula Zahn dust-up, with CNN first asserting and then denying the relevance of Ms. Zahn’s being “just a little bit sexy.” But anyone who has seen Ms. Zahn conduct an interview with her marvelously shapely and well-preserved gams pinioned under her unnecessarily front-less desk knows that they are a big part of her appeal. Walter Cronkite never did that – indeed, it’s a kind of apocalyptic image just to imagine him trying. Of course, when Mr. Cronkite was in his prime it made sense for newscasters to wear clothes on television – almost everybody on television did all the time. That is no longer the case. In another carefully managed CNN effort, word is out that recent CNN hire, Andrea Thompson, has posed nude.

The Promised Land to CNN - if the Andrea Thompson drill is any indication - is Naked News, which has emerged out of Russia. Naked News features attractive, stripping, eventually naked, newscasters (it seems inappropriate to refer to them as “talking heads”). The phenomenon has spread to Europe and now Canada.

But the whole approach seems misguided. It is just too hard to include a large amount of actual nudity into popular mass media. Besides, revealing flesh is pointless if the quality of the flesh revealed is not exceptionally high. And the fact is that it will be very difficult to get the best looking people to bare all in front of a network news audience.

Which is why I suggest "Bikini News."

Why not frankly admit that the news presenter has nothing to do with selecting or writing the news presented. The presenters will be bikini-clad with top-flight bodies – but never nude? This should allow the networks to hire the most physically attractive people - who would be deterred by the need to perform nude. For example, compare the respectable but hardly awe-inspiring women on the Canadian Naked News with the famously top-drawer quality featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue! Or, those with other preferences may want to check out what the current captain of the Harvard water polo team is up to these days.

Avoiding actual nudity would also allow for the relatively easy hiring of young, reasonably intelligent people – thereby avoiding the annoying impression that the news presenter does not understand the copy being read, but also allowing their replacement if they put on a few pounds, age or sag. Ugly, troll-like, more articulate people can work diligently behind the scenes to create the copy and the agenda. Economic rationality might be restored.

The network news divisions seem to be having a good deal of difficulty mastering the new model. For example, in a confused gesture, CNN has apparently indicated that it will be willing to assimilate Ted Koppel should the opportunity arise – thereby significantly setting back the progress CNN has made with the Zahn/Thompson hires. This is evidence that the news divisions resemble the telecom companies that emerged form the breakup of the old AT&T monopoly. It just takes a while and a different kind of approach to deal with new market realities. But nobody learning that the young, pretty and almost transhumanly intelligent and articulate Peggy Noonan was relegated to writing copy for the constipatory Dan Rather, could help but question whether the networks have been doing the cost/benefit arithmetic right for a very long time.

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