US anchors are late to the game, but ahead of our players

CAN a woman be sole anchor on the evening news? Believe it or not that question is still vexing media pundits across the United States.

The critics will get their answer on Tuesday (5 September) when America's CBS Evening News gets its first full-time woman news anchor, Katie Couric. But in case you feel too smug about it, there is a sting in this tale.

Couric — or Katie to everyone — is what critics call ‘perky and upbeat', because her previous job was fronting NBC's popular morning show Today. Her rival over at ABC's World News Tonight is Charlie Gibson who has come to the anchor desk from the frothy world of Good Morning America. But critics don't think Charlie is perky and upbeat; he is a man, and on the evening news is called ‘Charles'. No, Charles is ‘erudite'.

The debate about Couric's arrival runs deeper than 1950s retro-sexism. It's also seen as an iconic ‘Good Night, and Good Luck' to the values that shaped CBS News for decades.

But those journalistic values did not disappear when Couric was hired, and they aren't embodied in the switch from mahogany to maple laminate on the desk.

They had been under attack for a long time. Its most distinguished international correspondent, Tom Fenton, questioned the network's commitment to serious foreign news, and previous anchor Dan Rather's seat only became vacant because the incumbent staked his journalistic credibility on forged memos about George W. Bush's military service. It was Rather's enthusiasm for remaining a journalist that created the vacancy. Couric is unlikely to share that dangerous passion, but neither is any news anchor with an eye for permanence.

In case you're reading this online and think that network news doesn't matter anymore, it still captures the attention of 25 million middle-aged Americans every night and advertisers spend $400 million for the privilege of reaching them.

CBS will be hoping Couric has the pulling power to bootstrap them out of third place to the number one slot they occupied in their glory days. Well, the $10 million promotional campaign that CBS is laying on ought to do something for the Nielsens, but network news audiences don't traditionally wash around.

Incidentally if the above has left you feeling immeasurably self-satisfied with the ability of British TV news to put women on the air, here's the sting — age. Couric is 49 years old. She's coming to the job far older than her UK counterparts, and there's every likelihood that if successful she'll retain it for a very long time.

Compare Couric's arrival with the words of Anna Ford, who signed off from TV this year at an age when Barbara Walters was barely getting going. Ford said of new presenters: "I think they are being brought in because they are younger. I think that's specifically one of the reasons why they're being employed."

Here in Britain there are ever fewer 16- to 34-year-olds and the demographic momentum is ever older. So set aside the sexism in the Katie Couric saga, and let's hear it instead for longevity, and salute American television for prizing age and experience — two qualities which in the UK we seem to value most in men.

ON AN entirely less serious note, the Vicky Pollard of journalistic objectivity — "this fing wot you know nuffin about" — namesake columnist Stephen, has appealed to Israel not to boycott the Beeb over its Lebanon coverage.

Pollard was writing in the Jerusalem Post, but he's usually found in The Times, and even more often online, where he exhibits a condition known as ‘blogorrhea'.

Pollard's appeal (two words that sit uncomfortably together) was laced with an hysterical account of the BBC's journalism, comparing it to Hezbollah's own TV station (somewhere reporters really do get a rocketing). In The Times in July he had a go at the BBC again over Lebanon.

If Pollard really wants to pick up the flag for journalistic objectivity he might seek out Sam Kiley, who used to cover the Middle East for The Times.

Kiley reported how his bosses "flew into hysterical terror every time a pro-Israel lobbying group wrote in with a quibble or complaint, and then usually took their side against their own correspondent — deleting words and phrases from the lexicon to rob its reporters of the ability to make sense of what was going on." Kiley quit.

I don't carry a particular torch for the corporation, but it goes without saying that Stephen Pollard isn't fit to shine the shoes of either Kiley or BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. These people have risked their lives for journalism.

Pollard wouldn't risk his lunch for it.

‘YOU used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big', William Holden says to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

Swanson replies ‘I AM big. It's the PICTURES that got small.'

Ah yes. For ITV News it's not the pictures, it's the schedule that's shrunk. From Monday (4 September) their lunchtime hour gets cut in half and unceremoniously shunted off to half past one. The reason? Daytime boss Alison Sharman wants to find space for Loose Women, ITV's ersatz version of America's The View.

The network still has one strand of programming that doesn't spell quality with a K — the news. ITV News has been scoring hits while having its budget battled over and its regional operations reduced. It has some genuine homegrown stars. Could it possibly be worth celebrating instead of sidelining?

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