The loss of father figures
NEW YORK – They were the men you could depend upon, the faces you’d see every night at dinnertime. In times of trouble, they were always there. Their words rang with authority.For a generation of television viewers, it was a role assumed by Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. Not just anchormen, they were father figures, and their sudden absence as a regular presence after more than 20 years leaves an empty feeling.Within nine months, Brokaw and Rather slipped into more grandfatherly positions at NBC and CBS, while Jennings announced he had lung cancer and left the air. He died on Aug. 7.”It is very much a familial relationship when you know you can depend on them being there, especially in a society where you can’t always depend on people being there,” said Jennings Bryant, a University of Alabama professor who has studied the media’s effect on families. “In some ways, they are more ideal fathers than some people often have.”Some 10,000 telephone calls or e-mails of condolence were sent to ABC News this week, with 20,000 people posting thoughts on the network’s message board. ABC hasn’t begun to count the cards and flower arrangements.Jennings was the unflappable dad, the debonair one whose suit closet you dreamt of invading. His passport was stamped with exotic places. He’d give you more homework than you could handle.
And he was the father you never had the chance to say goodbye to.Brokaw always dispensed plainspoken advice. He’d finish the day with a beer, not a martini. He could dress up in a tuxedo for a fancy party, even though you knew he felt better in jeans.Rather would make eye-rolling comments half the time he opened his mouth, even as he secretly smiled at your indignation. He was a little too tightly wound, and you’d have to watch his temper. But you could count on him. Always, you could count on him.During news reports about Jennings’ death it was telling that one of the most-played pieces of videotape showed the anchor, his eyes moist, briefly exhibiting the vulnerability everyone felt during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”We do not very often make recommendations for people’s behavior from this chair but as Lisa (Stark) was talking, I checked in with my children, and it – who are deeply distressed, as I think young people are across the United States,” he said. “And so if you’re a parent, you’ve got a kid in some other part of the country, call them up. Exchange observations.”All three anchors were vital that day. They didn’t necessarily offer reassurance; there wasn’t anything to be sure of. Instead, their steadiness meant the family wasn’t falling apart even as the world seemed to be.Before that crystallizing day, it was easy to overlook what was in plain sight.
“They’re almost like a habit to you,” said Tom Bettag, ABC “Nightline” executive producer. “They’re just there. What’s always there and never missing I think you do take for granted.Toward the end, you didn’t visit as much as you used to. The evening news has been losing viewers for years, down roughly from 34 million a night a decade ago to 25 million now, and most of those left are graying. There are many more options now to keep up on the news, more options to do almost anything in a well-wired world.But when something serious was happening, you were more likely to check in with them than anyone else, including the networks that beam news 24 hours a day.Their authority largely stemmed from their experience. Each man personally covered stories – the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate – that for many Americans exist only in history books. They saw themselves as reporters, not teleprompterreaders.More often than not, they knew the stories they were talking about. They didn’t use hyperbole. They didn’t panic.Bettag often wonders what it would have been like for Americans to have gone through the tumultuous events of 1968 without that generation’s trusted anchors, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Similar guiding hands were there on Sept. 11, he said.Such status isn’t conferred; it’s earned. Bettag, once Rather’s producer, remembers the tough early years when the anchor was trying to emerge from Cronkite’s shadow. It was a point of pride to Rather to eclipse Cronkite’s longevity record.
“Watching CBS try to figure out what the hell to do after Dan is a real statement that replacing a person like this is incredibly difficult,” Bettag said.Now it’s time to figure out who in television news will become the new figures of parental authority, or whether that very idea left with Jennings, Rather and Brokaw.It may even be a mom: Katie Couric seems the most ideally suited, but it’s not clear how long news will be her focus. Fox’s Shepard Smith is more like the wise-guy older brother. Charles Gibson needs to feel like more than a substitute teacher. Brian Williams has tried assiduously to become the new Brokaw.But it takes time.No one fills dad’s empty place at the table immediately.Vail, Colorado
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