Letting it all hang out
Television anchors seem to be the Mona Lisas of broadcast TV, rarely prone to over-excitement (Dan Rather being an exception), and rarely showing raw emotion on the air (Rather excepted again). Viewers revere these men -- almost always men -- as shining lights of objectivity, reading the news with authority and sincerity.
So when ABC News decided to launch a special e-mail newsletter in October 1999 "from the desk of Peter Jennings," here was an opportunity to unveil an anchor's depth of personality. Leave it to American broadcasters to keep the flavor distinctly vanilla. While Jennings is "very interested in the Internet as a new frontier for journalism" (his spokesperson assures me), his dispatches read largely as promotional vehicles for tonight's show.
Most other e-mail newsletters follow the time-honored tradition of hyping the TV program, and NBC and CBS don't even pretend the anchors are involved in the e-mailing at all. CNN's Wolf Blitzer actually puts some time into his online columns, giving some insider dirt on the news of the day -- though the e-mail dispatches are abridged versions. Plus, Blitzer's opinion is rarely controversial or emotional. It took a fill-in anchor/columnist, Martin Savidge, to bring feeling to the task, while describing his embedded experience in Iraq.
"I have realized that this new technology that allows reporting from the front has launched a different kind of journalism," Savidge wrote. "It allows communication on a much more human and intimate level." He was talking about satellite and cable TV, of course, and not the Net.
Upstaged in England
Though there are strict rules about impartiality in the news in Britain, the anchors of Channel 4 and the BBC have taken the e-mail-the-audience idea to a much more entertaining place, making their U.S. counterparts look like mush-mouthed goody two-shoes.
Paul Carr, who is editor of the snarky e-newsletter The Friday Thing, is an unabashed fan of Channel 4's anchor Jon Snow (they call them "newsreaders" or "presenters" in England -- arguably a more apt term). Carr gushed in a recent article in the U.K. Guardian, calling Snow the best newsreader in Britain, and saying his Snowmail dispatches were "brilliant insight into the mind of the great man....(and) his thinly disguised mistrust of American government officials." Carr believes the Net has revolutionized the relationship with anchors and their audience, making them almost "favorite news uncles" instead of the detached figures of the past.
Snow agreed on that point, telling me via e-mail that he could be much more candid about events on Snowmail than on the air. However, the anchor also told me that he could devote only about five or six minutes to the task each day, as it's done in a rush -- a stream of consciousness, either written or dictated. While there is editorial oversight on his dispatches, Snow admits some naughty bits have slipped through. "I've so far committed one serious contempt of court (undiscovered) and a couple of libels (equally so)," he wrote. "I named someone the judge said could not be named, and no one spotted it. Fortunately no repercussions but it was a warning. I won't elaborate..."
As for Snow's American counterparts, he says "none of them are as candid or open as ours...We let it all hang out!" Indeed.
Did you hear the one about the blonde...
While Snow's misdeeds have gone undiscovered so far, BBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman has taken some heat for blonde jokes included in his e-mail dispatches. Paxman came to the e-mail game a little later than Snow, but isn't shy about knocking his rival.
"It's obvious from the dreadful spelling and grammar, apart from anything else, that (Snowmail is) dictated," he wrote to me. Paxman vaguely cites other anchor e-mails as being "a fraud on the public. They are not what they claim to be. If an e-mail purports to come from an anchor, the anchor had bloody well better have written it. It won't do that it's been penned by some hapless producer whose job it is to make the presenter look good."
As for the brouhaha over blonde jokes, Paxman shrugged it off at the time, and explains why he has a penchant for giving a roundup of the news with a joke mixed in at the end of each e-mail. "When I was first asked to write a daily e-mail I asked myself what I would like to see drop into my inbox each day," he said. "I concluded the only thing worth seeing was a joke. So I put one in every day...I grant you that they're not always funny. But I try."
Anchors cracking jokes to viewers, or sending libelous e-mails? Not bloody likely in the states, but maybe this is an area that might improve network ratings? If people really felt a connection with anchors who wrote from their heart via e-mail, perhaps they'd feel more loyalty to the nightly news. Paxman, however, doesn't think the interest in e-mail dispatches will last.
"They are a fad," he said. "I suspect we shall look back upon them like people now look back upon 3-D cinema goggles. Of course, the attempt is to create a sense of community. But it is largely a one-way traffic. If these e-mails are to be done -- and done honestly -- then they need some time and effort. Whether they are a worthwhile use of a presenter's time is another question."