There's a lot of chatter in the media right now about the network anchors. At CBS, 69-year-old temp Bob Schieffer is a surprise hit, even as Katie Couric is in the background, reportedly negotiating for his job. Meanwhile, with both ABC anchors in doubt (one wounded, the other pregnant), Diane Sawyer is said to be eyeing Peter Jennings's old chair. Of course, we don't really know what's happening, because the process is hidden from view.
Since TV anchors are among our most visible and powerful public figures, isn't it strange that they're chosen in secret? Think about it. Network execs go off with the stars and the stars' agents and work out a contract. The deal is then presented to us viewers as a fait accompli. Here is Brian Williams, folks, like him or lump him.
This is the traditional way, and it worked fine back in the media dark ages. But it's no way for a free, modern society to choose its supreme purveyors of information.
If the network news is indeed a public trust, deserving of the special place it occupies in our culture, then surely the American public should have a say about who is in charge of its premier product—the nightly newscasts, without which, let's face it, we could barely call ourselves a nation.
They're our anchors, and it's time we started choosing them in a truly democratic way, through free and fair popular elections. Anchor elections make good sense for a number of reasons:
1. Network news is a flagging business that badly needs a shot in the arm, some new frisson that will draw in the younger, non-Depends-wearing viewer who has fled for podcasts, pornography, and other scurrilous pursuits.
2. Lately, we've grown accustomed to thinking of everything on TV as a contest. Survivor, The Apprentice, The Bachelor, and Dancing With the Stars have all been huge hits. Staging high-concept competitions is obviously what the networks do best. Why not extend this successful model to the news divisions?
3. TV journalists are widely loathed for the uppity behavior they exhibit around political leaders, shouting rude questions and hurling David Gregory-style abuse. These bloated egos need a taste of political life themselves, so they can improve their woeful coverage of our leaders. Running for anchor will teach them what it really feels like to campaign for office, without bestowing on them any actual political power (scary thought). Even the losers will come away better, more sensitive journalists.
4. Elections will solve one of the great mysteries of civilization: What makes an anchor popular? Schieffer's success has produced confusion about what qualities we-the-people want in our anchors. Do we prefer the gray paterfamilias figure that he epitomizes, or the younger "glam" anchor typified by Anderson Cooper and Couric? It's a momentous question that can be answered only by a national vote.
5. The media have had a bad run of scandals, and their public-esteem numbers are riding low. They can recover their reputation by turning TV news into a true republic—a word that comes from the Latin phrase for "thing of the people." That's what the anchor plebiscite would be, a people thing.
It would also be massive fun. The electoral process might mimic real political elections. Once an opening occurred, the nets would announce the start of primary season, at which point anyone in public life could nominate him- or herself. And many would. Arianna Huffington, for example, would almost certainly place her name in nomination for any open position. Interesting TV used-to-be's and also-rans like Connie Chung and Phil Donahue might pop up and give it a shot. Heck, Walter Cronkite might come out of retirement and throw his hat in the ring. Imagine the excitement.
Like other elected public figures—George Bush, Hillary Clinton, Kelly Clarkson—the winning anchors would have the legitimacy that comes from being chosen by the voters in a free, fair, and open process. They'd be able to look up from the big desk and truthfully say: "Good evening, I'm America's anchor, and this is the news." And for once, just maybe, we'd believe them.