This weekend, days before his predecessor Tom Brokaw comes up with yet another inevitable bestseller, NBC evening news host Brian Williams will be hosting Saturday Night Live. To mark the occasion, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, author of the new book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War, took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez on Williams and the news wars.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is there precedent for an anchor doing something like hosting SNL, as Brian Williams is this weekend?
Howard Kurtz: There was a bit of a fuss when Walter Cronkite met Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1974. But for an incumbent, non-buffoon anchor to risk making a fool of himself on Saturday Night Live is a roll of the dice — one that Williams refused to take in turning down the offer last season. He did do a “Weekend Update” skit, and the man was so nervous he had flop sweat.
Lopez: How mad is Katie Couric right now, since she’s not hosting SNL — and likely never will?
Kurtz: Hey, she already had her chance swapping jobs with Jay Leno, a stint distinguished by a gag in which the Tonight Show desk was hollowed out to show off her legs. Katie doesn’t need to prove to viewers that she has a personality; that’s never been her problem.
Lopez: Is there any question she made a huge career mistake?
Kurtz: I’d call Couric’s move a $15-million-a-year gamble that hasn’t yet paid off for CBS. In the book I describe a slew of mistakes she made early on — adding too many fluffy segments to the newscast, minimizing or blowing off important stories, conducting a nine-minute interview with a mountain climber’s widow — that alienated the core audience. And, of course, some people just don’t like the queen of morning TV in the 6:30 role. But she’s gone back to a traditional hard-news format — including her recent trip to Iraq — and that has led to a better broadcast. The question is whether she can get people to give her a second look.
Lopez: Is it a sign of evening-news desperation that Williams is doing such a thing? Desperate for anyone who can stay up past 7 p.m. to watch?
Kurtz: It’s true that the average age of viewers watching all those segments on back pain and hip replacement is 97. (Okay, I made that up. It’s 60.) But there’s little question that NBC is trying to show a late-night audience that Brian can be a wild and crazy guy. NBC executives have privately urged Williams to show more of his personality on Nightly News — he is, in fact, one of the funniest people in the biz — but he has clung to a very formal anchor role. Maybe the Saturday night gig looked more attractive after Charlie Gibson took over the ratings lead.
Lopez: Is “new media” killing evening news?
Kurtz: In a way, along with the not-so-new media of cable news and talk radio.
It’s harder to have a fresh nightly newscast when we’re all downloading whatever we need in seconds (while doing our online shopping). But with 25 million viewers, the network newscasts still have impact. They played a key role in turning public opinion against the Iraq war. ABC broke the Mark Foley scandal. When Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy, she sought out interviews with Brian, Katie, and Charlie. If their broadcasts fade into irrelevance, it will be because they kept playing to their base until its members went to the great television-watching couch in the sky.
Lopez: What is the evening news, ultimately? News, or entertainment? Do they aim for both? Are they going through a definitional transition currently or something more?
Kurtz: These broadcasts are one of the last bastions of serious news. They only do Paris and Anna Nicole stories once in awhile! But you’ve got to get people inside the tent, which is why NBC and CBS have occasionally played Daily Show clips. They’re also trying to leave the Brokaw-Jennings-Rather era behind by gaining a foothold online. ABC’s daily Webcast is much hipper than the “World News” you see on the air.
Lopez: Does evening news offer any cautions for “new media?”
Kurtz: If the nightly newscasts vanished, who would bloggers slam for a living? Would Jon Stewart be satisfied merely mocking cable hosts? It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Lopez: Is there any legitimate reason for Democrats to be as hostile as they appear to be to Fox News debates? Brit Hume used to work for ABC for Pete’s sake…And he ain’t Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann…
Kurtz: The candidates are bowing in part to pressure from liberal bloggers who can’t stand Fox. Hillary certainly held her own with Chris Wallace during her Full Ginsburg on the Sunday shows. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more criticism from the mainstream media, which would certainly make it an issue if the Republican candidates boycotted MSNBC.
Lopez: Does Hillary Clinton hate Charlie Gibson?
Kurtz: Charlie’s an awfully hard guy to dislike. He always signs off by hoping that you had a good day. I don’t think the Hillary camp was thrilled when Gibson, alone among the anchors, refused to tape a post-announcement interview with her because he didn’t like the 3-1/2 minute restriction and no-editing edict. But they compromised on a live interview and I believe have resumed diplomatic relations.
Lopez: Are evening-news shows politically biased?
Kurtz: Conservatives sure think so. In a Gallup poll, 65-percent of Democrats approved of the job Couric is doing but only 36 percent of Republicans.
(Williams had 47-percent support from GOPers, and Gibson 56 percent.) That’s a problem. While I found some instances of stories that leaned to the left, I think the newscasts generally try to be fair. The polarization is driven by the passions about the war and the Bush presidency. Many lefties think the networks are too soft on the administration.
Lopez: Is Brian Williams a conservative?
Kurtz: Some insiders suspect he’s a closet winger. He’s certainly open to both viewpoints — he’s quoted Rush Limbaugh and reads conservative blogs as well as liberal ones. He is President Bush’s favorite anchor; they chat about books they’re reading. But Williams has been tough on the White House, especially when he thinks the administration is hyping the war on terror, so he’s drawn his share of flak from the right.
Lopez: You’re a man of all media seasons, but do you have a preference? Print column, online column, TV show? Book writing?
Kurtz: I have ink in my veins. Television is great fun, but when I’m in a rocking chair I’ll still be able to write. And nothing is more satisfying than books. Since something had to go when I was doing them all at once; I decided not to have a life.
Lopez: Did you think twice before interviewing yourself on Reliable Sources?
Kurtz: Twice, three times and four times. But I really hammered myself! And Kurtz vs. Kurtz seems to be a popular video online.
Lopez: Which was worse: your self-interview or Russert’s UFO question to Kucinich the other night?
Kurtz: My flight of fancy was far more down to earth.
Lopez: I know you have a page there (not a Mark Foley page…), so I must ask: Does anyone over 21 really fit in on Facebook?
Kurtz: When I first wrote last spring about joining Facebook — spurred by my college daughter’s refusal to “friend” me — people my age acted like I was exploring Pluto. Now I’m constantly getting Facebook messages from middle-aged journalists, political operatives, and assorted hacks. The invasion is nearly complete. The main difference between me and a college sophomore on Facebook, is that I don’t post 700 pictures of myself, some of them Not Safe for Work.
Lopez: Why is Brian Williams “remarkably skeptical about the digital world?”
Kurtz: Williams writes a daily blog, so he certainly gets it. But there is something about the notion that any yo-yo can put up a blog that offends him, and he worries that folks are visiting only the sites they agree with. He couches it by saying that if everyone is blogging about what they had for lunch, who is reading all this stuff? My attitude is, welcome to the wired world.
Lopez: Who will get more traction in the next decade: a Brian Ross or a Brian Williams?
Kurtz: Brian Williams — if he gives up the anchor chair and chases his life dream of succeeding Conan O’Brien.
Lopez: Prediction: Will Williams actually be funny Saturday night, live?
Kurtz: Yes. And if not, at least we’ll get to laugh at him.