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New Anchors a Way to Re-Examine Mideast?

August 3, 2006 By:
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Brian Williams
How does the muddled Mideast play out in Middle America?

So much depends on perspectives presented by the Top 3 TV news anchors on a nightly basis. And the networks themselves are trying to clear up their own muddied picture of who's on first -- or at least, who deserves to get your attention first and foremost.

Their own TV picture has changed the past year; after decades of stability, the major networks have seen shifts at anchor desks seemingly as stable as sand, and their once inviolable image inundated with the Internet's growing importance, all the while being flogged by blogs.

And that's the way it is these days. Courage? More than that -- and a cardigan sweater -- is needed. Which is why the Top 3 makeover makes for an interesting opportunity to find out just where NBC, ABC and CBS -- currently ranked in that order each evening -- will be making news of their own as Brian Williams, the "dean" of anchors at NBC, faces an upcoming challenge from Charles ("Everyone calls me Charlie") Gibson, ABC; and Katherine (everyone calls her Katie) Couric at CBS.

Is real change at the networks indicative of real change of Israel coverage? Will it be coming out of left field, right field or Willie Mays territory?

All the news that's fit to be ... broadcast -- or cause Israeli partisan viewers feel fit to be tied?

Taking part in the summer tour of the Television Critics Association -- of which I am a member -- afforded "TV Turn-Ons" the opportunity to tune into the newly shaped news zeitgeist, getting up close and personal -- well, not that close to Gibson, who was sattel-ited-in from Cyprus -- to find out what their version of a Mideast midrash will be.

Last things first: How would Kouric, freshly returned from a "town hall" tour to glean impressions of what America thinks of news coverage prior to her taking over the network spot Sept. 5, cover the Mideast today -- if not for "Today":

"One thing that I think is really important is sometimes we assume people know a lot more than they really do about history or historical context.

"So I would like to not only do the news of the day and what the latest is in terms of what's going on in Lebanon with the government or what missiles have been fired, but really a broader look at the ramifications, the options for the United States and the various parties, and Europe as well.

"And I'd like to provide a little more information to people about who these groups are, where they came from, who they're affiliated with, what countries support them.

"Because I think some Americans hear Hamas and Hezbollah and it might as well be Greek to them."

No spartan reporting here. "I think we can do a better job of not dumbing down by any stretch but somehow explaining things better, in some cases distilling them better."

Or maybe expanding on them. "Evening news should always be a place where no matter where you've gotten your news of the day ... you do have to include that.

"But I think there is an opportunity on the evening news when warranted to expand coverage of a certain area and to not be trapped into one 30-second piece, [like a] live shot from Capitol Hill when nothing is really happening on Capitol Hill."

"World News With Charles Gibson" has made headlines itself, striking the "Nightly" from its title to focus on the dawn of the all-news, all-time potential of the network via TV, the Internet, iPods.

"This is actually a very perilous time in the Middle East," Gibson said from Cyprus, covering the evacuation of Americans from Lebanon -- "The military is very careful to say this is not an evacuation; it's an 'assisted departure' " -- for ABC.

"It seems as if the world is going to let Israel do what it feels it needs to do for a while before it intercedes in some kind of cease-fire or some kind of agreement to end all this.

"Of course, the great peril is that this kind of fighting could widen before it's actually settled."

Settle a point: Must anchors travel to headline-hot areas to afford first-rate coverage?

"Does it necessarily mean it's going to be better [coverage] because you have an anchor there? It probably calls more attention to the story," conceded Gibson, "but I'm very mindful of the fact that the people who regularly cover the beat know it best."

"Just because the guy is an anchor and flies in doesn't mean he knows it better than the people who are on the ground," such as Wilf Dinnick in Jerusalem.

And yet ... given the changing geopolitical profile of the Mideast, a visit now and then is instructional, proving in this case "a tremendous learning experience for me."

"To have a couple of hours of the new Israeli foreign minister's time, to have an afternoon with one of the top military people in the IDF, it's just invaluable. And it gives you a far better sense of how people are thinking."

Think so? "One of the problems is, unfortunately, that you can't move readily, especially now, between the two sides in this conflict.

"And, needless to say, it's a little tough to find out what's inside the minds of Hezbollah."

Maybe even their own Mideast mishpachah don't know for sure?

"It's very interesting," added Gibson, "to see the Saudis and the Arab League and the Jordanians and others also standing back and not calling for Israel to stand down in this. The Israelis, and I think the military in Israel, are interpreting this as the world saying, do what you have to do, and we as a world, we will step in in time."

"We are the world" as a place where Arabs side with the West? News frontrunner Brian Williams meets the press -- and the pressure -- of being No. 1 with style and grace -- and the occasional chuckle.

Taking the middle ground on the Mideast? "I don't engage in opinions ever," said Williams.

He will say, however, that "two days ago we were up in the north and as I wrote on my blog from my Blackberry standing there, you are standing on this gravel where the Bible tells us Jesus stood, overlooking the body of water where the Bible tells us he approached Peter.

"We are looking at the wreckage of a Katyusha rocket that maybe 30 seconds earlier, before our car had come around the turn, landed and disintegrated, and had spread fire across the low scrub brush."

It was an eye-awakening brush with reality. "You see Israeli soldiers responding to that; firefighters from the city of Tel Aviv learning how to put out brush fires. It's mind-bending."

And world shattering? "And a friend of mine who was there said that he can't help but think that we're standing on the next true global confrontation."

The sound and the fury: "Will it begin with a bang or a whimper? Have we just seen the bang, and how will it end?"

Is the endgame here?

"I don't think there's any evidence that they [Israelis] feel this is the start of the 'A' word, to quote you, something I fear to mention," he said of the use of the word Armageddon. "I do feel that the Israelis say, 'We'll be done when we're done here.' "

Is it a never-ending story?

"I think this story is going to have our attention for, sadly, a long time to come."

Which may be why Williams is forever ready. "It's why I travel with a passport 24/7."

New "kid" on the block Gibson is inarguably the most seasoned of all the broadcast journalists; the Princeton graduate has been a tiger at covering world hot spots for decades.

But there's at least one instance in which he could have learned a thing from Williams as the newbie news anchor.

"When we left Israel this morning to come to Cyprus, I forgot [my passport]. We had to send somebody back to get my passport. So the job is still relatively new." 

 

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