The Man in the Chair

Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather have retired, Ted Koppel’s on his way out at Nightline, and Peter Jennings’s future is uncertain due to his health. As many have opined over the past couple of months, the era of the mighty network anchor appears to be coming to an end. Viewers suffering withdrawal from their favorite friend-in-the-box might find a meaningful substitute in CNN’s Aaron Brown, who combines serious reportage with an ego that’s still modest enough to fit within the camera frame. The Hopkins native began his journalism career at WLOL 1330 AM in Minneapolis three decades ago. Since then he has risen through the reportorial ranks to host CNN’s flagship evening news broadcast and serves as lead anchor for breaking news. Last month, Brown—who attended the University of Minnesota for a year, and never acquired a bachelor’s degree—appeared at the U Alumni Association’s Annual Celebration.

With a few weeks of perspective on it, do you have any second thoughts about the wall-to-wall coverage of the Terri Schiavo story?

I thought it was a great cable story. The nature of twenty-four-hour news is that it is available when people have time to watch it. If you wanted to know what was going on in the Terri Schiavo case at eight at night, we did it, and we did it at ten o’clock for people who wanted to know then. People get all exercised about this, but it’s a perfectly appropriate way for us to do journalism—[especially with] this story, because it mattered on a lot of levels. We all confront these questions of life and death and living wills, and whether modern medicine will keep us alive past the point where we want. Or is that even an appropriate question—should we simply die at a time of God’s choosing? The story, on some level, touched everyone.

It also had a political dimension. To me what’s interesting about it is that it’s the best evidence we have that one of the few things Americans agree about as a people is that they don’t want government involved with this. That’s true of an overwhelming majority, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, evangelicals, atheists, Jews, or Catholics. People were saying, “This is best handled at the lowest level, this should be handled with families, in communities, or in a local court. It should not be handled in Congress.”

What does your audience get from having an anchor on location?

I’m a reporter at heart, and whatever ground I touch, I hope I bring something to that story. It’s what I’ve done since I was fourteen years old. You can’t “get it” sitting here in New York all the time. Some things you can do by phone and satellite, but you can’t appreciate the damage the tsunami did in Aceh until you smell, literally, that place, and meet those people. And in some respects, you can’t appreciate what we went through with the pope without being in St. Peter’s Square. I think it brings texture to a story. It changes the way I write it. It changes the way I talk about it.

What’s it like to have, say, five thousand bloggers checking your facts on the Internet?

I have no problem at all with five thousand fact-checkers—the more, the merrier. We go on the air each night believing that we are factually accurate, so checking facts is not a problem to me. The problem with bloggers is, who’s checking the bloggers? One of the traditional and important roles of the press, which some people lovingly refer to as the mainstream media, was to act as gatekeeper. Not every fallacious or untrue accusation made it to air. These days, in the era of the Internet, the role of gatekeeper is pretty much gone.

What happens without a gatekeeper?

In the Schiavo case, there was this memo that Republican senators got [that outlined how the GOP might benefit from the situation], and then a group of conservative bloggers started to write that it was phony, that Democrats had actually written the memo and that they were trying to embarrass Republicans. So that becomes news, but it’s not true. And it turned out to be demonstrably untrue. But people start to talk about it, and then Fox News talks about it, and all of the sudden something that has absolutely no basis in fact becomes part of a story. In another time, someone would actually check that before they reported it. Today we just kind of vomit out information—I mean the Net does—and it seeps its way into broader media coverage dangerously. So if you want to talk about fact-checkers, God bless ’em. I hope they check every word we report every day, and I hope they’re equally careful with every word they report.

What do you think of the rise of popular opinionated news outlets like Fox News Channel?

I’ve talked about this a lot in the last year. We seem to be in a time when too many people just want to hear that which they agree with—whether it’s Iraq or Terri Schiavo or anything, honestly. Fox is part of that, but, believe me, I hear it on the left all the time, too. For democracy—not to get too highfalutin on you, we are Minnesotans, after all—but for democracy, that’s a very dangerous place to be.

Why is that?

Because a successful democracy requires a citizenry that is informed. And to be informed requires that you understand the breadth of an argument or an issue. It’s not enough to just say, “They lied to us about the intelligence,” for example. Rarely are things that clear. Because I’m in the business of presenting complicated stuff in the most objective way I can, my world would be a lot easier if people sat back and listened to the range of argument, and did it in a kind of civil way rather than [saying], “He’s an idiot,” or, “He’s a traitor,” or, “He’s a whore.” These are all things I’ve probably been called today … over nothing. [And] this has been a good day!