I have been inundated with questions about Rick Sanchez since he went after John Stewart and the Jews who run broadcasting and was subsequently fired last Friday. The most common question I’ve been asked is: “Would you have fired him.” I think the bigger question one should ask is whether I would have hired the man.
John Stewart easily proved that Rick Sanchez is a know nothing boob who did not have the knowledge necessary to do his job. Lisa de Moraes, in The TV Column writes: One example of Stewart’s derision came on March 2, when Stewart’s show ran clips of Sanchez anchoring CNN’s live coverage of a Chilean earthquake and the accompanying fears of a tsunami. In the clips, Sanchez is seen mistaking the Galapagos Islands for Hawaii and asking an expert to explain to him what nine meters means “in English.” Stewart called CNN “the most trusted name in overcaffeinated control freaks,” and Sanchez’s photo was shown above an identifier that read “The Uninformant!”
How does a guy who doesn’t know what a meter is or where America’s 50th state is located get an anchor job on a U.S. national network? Further, you may ask, doesn’t anyone at CNN ‘vet’ the hires? Don’t they check the background, knowledge and prejudices of the people they foist on the public and describe as journalists and news people?
The obvious answer is that they don’t do their due diligence and they don’t seem to care unless the guy or girl loses their cool and blurts out a racist remark. Sanchez was fired for his comments about Jews, not his ignorance of basic facts. I for one, find that a frightening proposition because it demeans all journalists, all journalism and certainly everyone involved with broadcast news. All we have is our authority and the trust of the audience. If we lose that we will cease to matter.
The anchor position in a newscast has undergone many changes in the past few decades. There was a time when all you had to do is read what others wrote and look good doing it. Good hair and smart suits were more important than good news judgment and smarts. Thankfully, that began to change in the era of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. These guys were authority figures. We knew we could trust what they said because we knew we could trust them to know what they were talking about. They weren’t what we later called “meat puppets,” they were newsmen, journalists.
Eventually that rubbed off on local news. It took decades, not years, but we finally reached the point where if you want to be an anchor in Calgary, Dallas, Halifax or Minneapolis, you had better have reporting experience. Sure there are a few old time announcers hanging in, although at the national level Lloyd Robertson is likely to be the last, but they should all be gone sooner rather than later.
Authority and trust, I thought, had become the most important attributes in choosing a new news anchor. That however, is beginning to change and it’s the all-news channels in the U.S. that are leading the movement towards blow-hards and shock-jocks. Fox may be the worst offender, but as Rick Sanchez and CNN have proved, they are not the only ones. Jeffrey Dvorkin wrote a terrific analysis in his blog, Now the Details http://www.nowthedetails.blogspot.com, he said, I do blame CNN: it allowed Sanchez (and others like him) on the air and seems unable to find its role, squeezed by the bloviators on Fox and the more thoughtful journalism to be found elsewhere on TV and radio. He also points out that in the U.S. there is actually nothing new in this trend: There is also a long tradition in American broadcasting of extreme opinions going back to Father Coughlin in Detroit in the 30s and 40s. Walter Winchell became equally paranoid in his later career and was one of the more effective red-baiters in the Cold War. Sanchez, Beck, O’Reilly and Limbaugh are entirely within that tradition.
This is where you are thinking that the recent hires at the national networks in both the U.S. and Canada have been experienced news people who take their roles seriously and for the most part, that’s true. But I remember the days, and it wasn’t that long ago, where newscasts were filled with solid news content and nothing but solid news content. Paris Hilton couldn’t buy her way onto a newscast and to get the results of last night’s American Idol, if it had existed, you would have to watch American Idol. Then came shows like A Current Affair and eventually Entertainment Tonight. They blurred the boundaries. I met people who said yes, they saw the news, and it turned out they were watching A Current Affair. I have seen that style infect serious newscasts and grow to be an everyday part of what we now consider news.
Is it possible that Glenn Beck will eventually infect the role of the anchor? I hope not, but it is possible. Have you seen the ads for Dawna Friesen on Global? The marketing people at Global go out and hire a serious news woman with all the right credentials and then try to sell her to the public as a soccer mom. Where’s the authority? Where’s the journalist? Were Cronkite or Brinkley sold to the public as dads? Is it because she is a woman? It makes you wonder to what lengths Global will go to sell their news. Perhaps if Friesen doesn’t work out they will follow Fox’s lead. It seems far-fetched today, but then if I had told anyone in the news business 30 years ago that clips from Survivor would make it to a newscast they would have laughed and said it could never happen.