According to the ancient historian Plutarch, there once was a time, on a small Greek island called Ceos, when people were required to drink poison upon reaching the age of sixty.
In the United States of the twenty-first century, we are much more humane. We don’t kill our old people; we simply stop putting them on television.
That, at least, is the conventional wisdom, and it is especially conventional with regard to journalism, where, say the critics, young and vacuous anchors are taking over the airways, attracting viewers who are themselves young and vacuous, and thus susceptible to even the wildest claims of advertisers.
But it is not true. In fact, TV news is proving to be one of the last bastions of age and experience in the entire field of mass communications these days, which is a credit to those who run the business and a boon to those who watch.
The most important daily news programs on the major broadcast networks are ABC’s Nightline, with 62-year-old Ted Koppel presiding, and the early evening half-hours, anchored on ABC by Peter Jennings, 63; on CBS by Dan Rather, 70; and on NBC by Tom Brokaw, 62.
Of course, the prime-time news magazines attract more viewers and bring in more money, and the only one of these not to have sunk to the level of tabloid, CBS’s ever-classy 60 Minutes, is a virtual senior citizens’ home. Mike Wallace is 83; Andy Rooney is 83; Morley Safer is 70; and the show’s creator and executive producer, Don Hewitt, is 79.
Over at ABC, Barbara Walters continues to sit at the 20/20 anchor desk at the age of 70, and NBC’s Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips, who host Dateline, are 51 and 47 respectively, which means that even as the babies of the group they have a few years, and a lot of experience, behind them.
At the all-news cable networks, it is also the prime-time offerings that bring in the biggest audiences and incomes, as well as setting the tone and establishing the image for the networks. Most of these are interview programs, meaning that they require of the anchor even more background and knowledge than is needed to read the teleprompter on a conventional newscast. Once again, the people are old enough for the job.
Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, who rules the roost, is 52. CNN’s Larry King is 68. MSNBC’s newest hire, Phil Donahue, who will compete directly with O’Reilly starting this summer, is 66. The same network’s Alan Keyes, who holds down the important ten p.m. slot, is 51. And at CNBC, presently competing with O’Reilly, are the co-anchors of America Now, 54-year-old Lawrence Kudlow and 47-year-old Jim Cramer..
Fox News Channel, which is sometimes blasted by critics for having too many glossy-lipped young blondes on the air, is seldom credited for all of its parched-lipped old brunettes. In addition to O’Reilly, Fox provides employment for 58-year old Brit Hume, 46-year-old Tony Snow, 48 year-old David Asman, 47-year-old Greta van Susteren, and the men who called themselves the Beltway Boys, 59-year-old Fred Barnes and 62-year-old Mort Kondracke.
Even the host of Fox News Watch, despite his youthful appearance, is . . . well, up there.
What it all means is that the men and women who run the television news business in this country are much more concerned with content, and the quality of the people who present it, than the critics are willing to admit. They are much more likely to choose an anchor on the basis of the expertise that comes with years than they are the callow attractiveness that comes with youth.
Dean Rusk, who served as Secretary of State to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, once said that there are three categories of age: youth, middle age, and "Gee, you’re looking well." Television news, in at least one important way, is looking well, indeed.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .