Inside Story

Anchors away

Television | News anchors are taking on a life of their own, writes Jane Goodall. But are we losing something in the process?

Jane Goodall 17 December 2015 1340 words

Satirical malarkey with an incisive grasp: Jon Stewart interviewing the US navy’s Admiral Michael Mullen in 2010 for The Daily Show. Chad J. McNeeley/US Navy

Jon Stewart left The Daily Show on Comedy Central in August after sixteen years as its host. He had become one of the most influential figures in American news media, transforming the show from late-night satirical entertainment to an alternative current affairs program that could outsmart the more conventional offerings on CNN or CBS. Part of the entertainment for regular viewers was the spectacle of Stewart building his role as a counterforce to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, targeting O’Reilly’s place in the limelight in public debates and poaching his audience.

The role of the anchor on television news and current affairs programs is changing. Displacing the grey-suited men who spoke well, smiled little and never added so much as a comma to the scripts they were employed to read, Stewart proved that a more volatile and charismatic approach can be effective in the twenty-first-century media environment. Although some of the regular contributors to The Daily Show (notably Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver) subsequently became hosts of their own programs, Stewart himself is a one-off. His departure was a major television event in the Anglophone world because there is no one like him, though presenters everywhere are learning from his approach.

In Australia, Shaun Micallef offers some of the same ingredients in the ABC’s Mad as Hell, but stays firmly in the satirical entertainment camp. The break-out rant, a monologue to camera that is one of Stewart’s hallmark techniques, is a feature Waleed Aly introduced on Channel Ten’s The Project when he joined the program at the start of this year. Aly has something of the maverick about him and has proved he can deliver a monologue as a tour de force, but – in his public persona, at least – he is essentially a straight man, with entirely serious commitments as a commentator.

What’s unique about Stewart is his capacity to fuse satirical malarkey with a deadly earnest and intellectually incisive grasp of what is going on in the political environment. It’s this blend of anarchy and cogency that has made his influence so potent, and it’s a blend that doesn’t sit easily in the context of an establishment news media platform. A national broadcaster with public funding can’t afford to entrust a flagship current affairs program to a host who is likely to weigh anchor and take off in a whirl of self-directed invective. Our own ABC has more than enough trouble with accusations of political bias, and has to keep news and current affairs presenters on a short leash.

The breakaway news anchor may be a distinctively American phenomenon. In the HBO series Newsroom, he is mythologised as the temperamental loner Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), tormented by his own uncompromising principles during a rolling succession of national crises. Jon Stewart clearly draws on two American traditions. The first is that of the Jewish stand-up monologue, as pioneered from the late 1950s by Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. The second goes back to the postwar CBS news presenter Edward R. Murrow, who tore his way out of the straitjacket to do open battle with Senator Joe McCarthy.

Murrow, a figure brilliantly evoked by David Strathairn in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), gave a landmark speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago in 1958, in which he repudiated the constraints of establishment broadcasting. The standard excuse for the timidity, according to Murrow, was that the still-youthful television networks were yet to develop robust traditions of commentary. “If they but knew it,” he said, “they are building those traditions and creating those precedents every day.” And he pressed his case. “For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must indeed be faced if we are to survive.”

It’s strange to read this testament from someone looking down the tunnel of time to where we are now, and yes, we surely do owe Murrow. He set an example we still need to refer to. News anchors and current affairs presenters in public broadcasting are in a continuing battle to sustain genuine moral authority as they contest the political narratives surrounding “hard and demanding realities.”

How much have things changed since Murrow’s time? Accusations of political bias are a very effective way of keeping commentators gagged and interviewers bland. Virginia Trioli’s 2001 Walkley-winning interview with Peter Reith on the children overboard affair was uphill work. With the benefit of hindsight, she looks far too circumspect and courteous, yet the initial response from her audience was predominantly in Reith’s favour, supporting his claims that she was strident and disrespectful.

But things have progressed since then. Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30 has much greater licence to set the tone and call the shots in important political interviews. In her notorious recent stoush with Malcolm Turnbull, she asserted her authority decisively: “I ask the questions on this program.” It was a benchmark moment in terms of the balance of power between politician and broadcaster, and a sign of how far we have come in the fifteen years since the Trioli–Reith confrontation.

A licence to exercise control in interviews, though, is not the same thing as the freedom to deliver opinions and perspectives. The neutrality of the anchor is, perhaps inevitably, non-negotiable in publicly funded broadcasting. Waleed Aly’s experiments with the breakout monologue on The Project may explain his decision to leave the ABC, and it will be interesting to see where – or how far – he will exercise the freedom if he can sustain it over time.

Time is something the successful anchor has on his or her side. Edward Murrow had seven years as host of the news documentary program See It Now (1951–58). His counterparts at the BBC in the postwar era were Cliff Michelmore, who spent eight years as host of Tonight (1957–65), and Richard Dimbleby, who spent ten on Panorama (1955–65). The ABC’s first current affairs program, Four Corners, had a pattern of shorter terms in the hosting role until Caroline Jones took over in 1973 and stayed for eight years. Kerry O’Brien retires this year after five years, but before that spent fifteen years as presenter of what was then The 7.30 Report.

The role of the anchor provides a stable focus on the constantly changing patterns of national affairs. Here in Australia, with the revolving door syndrome in political leadership, it is of critical importance that our senior current affairs broadcasters stay put as prime ministers come and go. Movements in key broadcasting roles become news items in themselves. This year we see the departure from Four Corners of Kerry O’Brien. His replacement is Sarah Ferguson, whose return as a force majeure in current affairs began with a six-month term on 7.30 while Leigh Sales was on parental leave. Julia Baird, a presenter with both grace and gravitas, makes a welcome return to The Drum.

In the United States, Jon Stewart leaves a vacuum that his successor Trevor Noah struggles to fill. It’s easy to idealise Stewart and his role in transforming the landscape of television news, but even as I’m tempted to do so, an uncomfortable thought occurs. Could there have been a Jon Stewart without a Bill O’Reilly? The maverick game cuts both ways. A news program that becomes a vehicle for high-minded rants about the failings and distortions of our political culture has its counterpart in one that is a vehicle for propaganda and ranting of a much uglier kind. Perhaps, for the time being at least, we should be relieved that we have so far seen neither side of the equation in Australia. •