The worst, most depressing job I've ever had in my life was in 2003, when I was working a phone in a survey room and got assigned to do market research for CBS' morning show. The list of questions was endless, and because the network didn't want to let people know which show we were calling on behalf of, we had to ask respondents what they thought about CBS' show, NBC's Today show, and ABC's Good Morning, America, in a variety of categories. The first question had to do how often the respondent watched each of these shows, and while some said they usually watched Today and sometimes watched Good Morning, America, and some said they usually watched Good Morning, America, but sometimes watched Today in a pinch, hardly anybody ever admitted to watching CBS in the morning. This meant that I would spend half an hour or more on the phone with some stranger—as I said, it was a very long survey—asking about what they did or didn't like about a bunch of TV anchors and weathermen and approaches to hard news versus fluff, collecting thoughtful, deeply held opinions about two shows we weren't doing market research for.
At the same time, someone working on a different computer was collating the answers that we were being paid to get, which invariably amounted to sixty-something variations on, "I don't know, I told you I never watch it." By the time break time would roll around, I'd feel as if I'd been mining coal with my bare fingers. I'd stagger into the coffee room and beg for somebody to commiserate with me, but nobody would, because they'd been working there the previous year. All they'd say was, "Hey, just be grateful you didn't have to do this when Bryant Gumbel was still on the show." Apparently, then, all the answers tended to be along the lines of, "I don't really know, I told you I never watch it, but I do think that Bryant Gumbel seems like kind of an asshole." (In order to fully appreciate the dynamic at work here, you should keep in mind that Bryant Gumbel did not earn his reputation among morning-TV viewers as an asshole for anything he did on CBS. He earned it because of rumors that there was no love lost between him and Willard, the wacky weather man and other members of the Today show family. It is completely in keeping with what passes for logic at the upper tiers of the CBS News building that the network tried to compete with the Today show by hitching its star to the guy Today show fans were happiest to see leave.)
Although CBS has been fiddling around with morning shows for almost sixty years, it only began seriously trying to get itself a piece of the network morning ratings traffic in 1973, when it launched a much-hyped edition of what was then called the CBS Morning News. The anchors were Hughes Rudd, a veteran reporter in his fifties with a raspy voice and a seen-it-all manner and Sally Quinn, a society reporter for the Washington Post with no experience in TV and, to judge from her book about the experience (We're Going to Make You a Star), not much experience at anything else besides knowing the right fork. (She got a fame bump of the right kind in the late '90s, when an article she wrote for the Post about how the Clintons' real unforgivable sin was not being the right sort of people to be socially significant in her town, went viral among liberal bloggers.) Quinn was supposed to be the show's breakout sensation, instead used her time on the show to become an overnight public laughingstock, and was gone after six months.
This actually established a pattern at CBS, where the news division would do the best it could to turn out a program worthy of the memories of Edward R. Murow and Walter Cronkite with what it had to work with, and then, periodically, some higher-up who seemed to have never met a woman but had been told that they class up a joint, and also that women watch TV and like to watch shows featuring members of their own gender, would put out a press release announcing that they were bringing a woman on board. Although CBS has had access to a fair number of intelligent, ambitious, and talented TV journalists who happened to be women, the woman hired to make the morning shows more like Today have tended to be women who have distinguished themselves in other fields. For instance, the biggest "get" in the time slot's history since Sally Quinn was Phyllis George, who joined the show in 1985, at a time when her greatest accomplishments included winning the Miss America pageant and not throwing up while sitting next to Jimmy the Greek. George's tenure is best remembered for her interview with Gary Dotson, a man who had just been released from prison after serving six years on the basis of a false charge of rape, and Cathleen Crowell, the woman who had accused him when she was sixteen and then recanted. The atmosphere in that room must have been pretty tense, but George smiled all the way through the interview and seemed to get through it without anything too embarrassing or awkward. An entire nation sighed in relief. Then George leaned in and, her smile going nuclear, said to Dotson and Crowell, "How about a hug?"
On the day that Phyllis George was practicing relationship counseling between two people whose most fervent shared hope must have been that neither of them would ever be reminded again of the other's existence, the show was called CBS Morning News. By the time Gumbel took the reins, it was called The Early Show, the title that it stuck with up to the end of last week. (Gumbel left in 2002. After he was gone, the show settled into a not unpleasant, snoozy groove, practically making a solemn vow that it would only make news if someone who had just been voted off Survivor showed up for his interview drunk.) As of this past Monday, when it kicked off its latest reboot, it is called CBS This Morning. But whatever you call it, it always feels like the latest tinkering with the same basic commodity, with the same built-in contradiction: the new division wants to do solid, hard-news show, so they can hold their heads high when they're with their drinking buddies, and the people who sign their checks want a show that can compete with the happy-happy-joy-joy shows on NBC and ABC. The desire to find a compromise is the same impulse that led to the hiring of Katie Couric to anchor the CBS Evening News. If that show was a disappointment for all involved, it's not so much because of anything Couric did wrong but because nobody could figure out a way to make a network evening news broadcast relevant in the era of the Internet and 24-hour cable news channels. (Though it might have helped if CBS News weren't ridiculously underfunded, which means that it might have helped if Couric had told the network, "That's okay, I don't really need fifteen million dollars a year to live on, why don't you take most of that and plow it into correspondents and research teams and overseas bureaus—which I guess means there was something she could have done.)
So here we are with This Morning, which stars Charlie Rose as the seasoned old news dude, Gayle King as the peppy, plugged-in link to the show business world, and Erica Hill as… I'm not sure, exactly. Hill is a holdover from the pervious administration, having co-anchored the weekday edition of The Early Show since last year. (She had earlier done the news updates and co-anchored the show's Saturday edition.) The show has a large set that a lot of misguided thought went into, with a big table for all the leads and their in-house guests to sit at, with a brick wall and lots of TV screens and monitors and assorted knick-knacks surrounding them, and an adjacent room where we can see the guests hanging out waiting for their cues, as if they were lobsters awaiting the moment when a diner points at them and says, "That one!" While Rose and King do most of the interacting with guests and reporters, Hill mostly just sits there, looking improbably bright-eyed and gorgeous while reading items often the Teleprompter, perfectly, and looking as if she understands the implications of what she's saying, even though there have to be times when she's wondering if there will be any bagels left by the time the next commercial break arrives. Taken together, what I've just described probably amounts to the most under-appreciated set of skills you could encounter in a TV "journalist", and Rose and King are both up to the task of making you appreciate what it's like when those skills aren't there.
The greatest innovation of this incarnation of CBS-in-the-damn-morning is that the hard-news guy, Rose, is the one who's coasting. This may be an unfair judgment based on an early performance delivered under less than ideal circumstances; Rose spent much of the premiere week complaining that he had a cold, and whether or not he was over medicated, he was definitely having trouble adjusting to working at this ungodly hour. He sounded creaky, acted groggy, and looked as if his makeup had been done by someone whose undertaker's license should be revoked. Of course, Rose made his bones as an interviewer, and speaking as someone who slept about twenty minutes between the ages of sixteen and thirty-three, I retain fond memories of his 1980s night-owl show CBS News Nightwatch, where he had scintillating chats with Charles Manson, Berke Breathed, and other sociopaths. But over the course of two decades of his PBS show, he may have spent more time being treated as the wise and studly interlocutor than can possibly be good for him. This week on This Morning, he did post-report discussions with reporters in which he'd ask them a question that basically restated whatever they'd already said in the report, but with a question mark at the end, thus giving them a chance to say it again, with the option of adding the phrase, "Yes, Charlie," at the start. But maybe he'll be heaving thunderbolts once his cold is gone.
Gayle King, who needs to stop buying all her jewelry from a card table set up on my Aunt Lettie's front lawn, took the fluffier stuff, interviewing actors about their new movies and plays and suchlike, and demonstrated that this can be more of a minefield than interviewing John McCain about the state of the Republican party if you just play your cards right. She managed to creep out Rooney Mara, the Lisbeth Salender of the Hollywood remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by telling her that the audience she saw the movie with "was applauding at the revenge scene." "I… don't know if that's the correct response," said Mara. "I know it wasn't," said King, still grinning as if she had a front-row seat at The Book Of Mormon, "but we were applauding!" It looked as if it would be a toss-up whether the director would yell "Cut!" before Mara yelled, "Security!"
But most of the interview subjects seemed to have been asked on so that they could lend testimony, mute or otherwise, to the interviewers' chumminess. Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, for instance, thought he'd been called in to comment on the phenomenon of airlines making overoptimistic projections on non-stop, long-distance flights which end up having to be diverted to refuel, but it soon became clear that the main reason he was there was so that Gayle King could mention that she'd first "covered" him three years ago, when they both happened to be at the Academy Awards. Even John McCain looked ready to snuggle up in Charlie Rose's lap and consent to be petted, though if you looked at the thought balloon above his head, you could read the words, "I hope you're watching this, Jon Stewart! Not that I ever think about you, because I don't!" Also summoned to the set this week: Deepok Chopra, to discuss the medical dangers of Internet addiction, because he wears the word "Doctor" in front of his name.
The format and content of the first week of This Morning keep calling into question what point there is to a show like this at all now. Each episode begins a feature called "The Eye-Opener", a rapid-fire montage of the images from the news, which seems predicated on the idea that it won't refer to anything you haven't already heard about somewhere else—if you haven't, the clips won't make a lot of sense. And the show is peppered with snippets from the late-night shows, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which lend the context to the news that this show so far betrays no interest in attempting, and are likely to have cannibalized anything else in the TV news coverage that's worth making fun of. (In its inaugural week, This Morning failed to cough up anything that was much worthy of contemptuous ridicule: that honor was left to the early-early morning CNN show, a program watched only by Daily Show staffers and late-shift night watchmen who don't see the appeal of Angry Birds, that began the wacky practice of cold-calling celebrities at five in the A.M.) Even with the weirdly chosen interview subjects and Charlie Rose trying to be jovial while looking like grim death, the most ridiculous thing on This Morning may have been the report on the FDA's decision to ban orange juice from Brazil because of suspicions that it might contain traces of a carcinogen. This was introduced as "big news for your breakfast table!" Then reporter Chip Reid came on, Charlie asked him, "What's the risk here for people who love orange juice?" and Reid said, "Well, the Food and Drug Administration says there is no risk," that "there is simply no danger," and then they still went ahead and talked about it for five minutes.
But the most revealing thing on the show this week may have been Elizabeth Palmer's report from Syria, which included news footage of a mortar attack shaking up the reporter in front of the camera, who wasn't Palmer. "Not shaky cellphone video this time," Palmer intoned, "but recorded by foreign news cameras." Yes, foreign news cameras, from distant lands where the TV news departments still have budgets, and aren't we lucky that they let us use their footage. The glory days of the CBS morning slot, at least after Cronkite moved to the evening gig, may have been the years after Sally Quinn made her exit and Hughes Rudd just sat there and read the news at people. Rudd was one of the last of the gruff old-timers who learned his shit as a newspaperman before getting the chance to show that he could not fall over on-camera with the best of them, and he had a Cronkite-like air of authority combined with his own weird sense of humor. (He wrote a book called My Escape From The C.I.A. And Other Improbable Events. The paperback copy that I picked up in a used-book shop when I was in college had a blurb on the back from Thomas Pynchon. One of these days, I need to sit down and read that sucker.) When people at CBS News talk wistfully about having a morning show that's more of a hard-news show, they probably have something like that in mind, but they should probably just get over it. For one thing, the world of journalism, and maybe the world period, doesn't seem to make people like that anymore. Reporters now become reporters not with any ideas about seeing the world and becoming crusty and world-weary, but with the intention of breaking into TV, at which point they're lucky if they only become as slick and superficial as Charlie Rose, they're lucky. Any day you don't get your headlines from Wolf Blitzer is a day you're coming out a little bit ahead.
- Mo Rocca did a little piece, with circa-1982 computer graphics and clips of Jason Voorhees in action, about the superstitious dread of Friday the 13th. It was nothing to write home about, but for some reason, I've seen more of Mo Rocca on TV this past month than at any time since he left The Daily Show, Is he staging a comeback, or am I just suddenly looking in all the right places?
- After playing a clip of Stephen Colbert, Rose laughed mirthlessly—he laughs mirthlessly after every late-night comedy show clip—and said, "There's some truth to the notion of the relationship between super PACs and political candidates." This did not rate as the most cluelessly obvious statement of the millennium, but only because Washington correspondent Bill Plante had just been seen standing in front of a corner of the White House saying, "Everything that happens down here is, eventually, political.
- "I think our whole civilization is bamboozled by the superstition of maturity." What the hell is that even supposed to mean? I have no idea, but I can tell you that it's what you get if you stick a microphone in Deepok Chopra's face when he's not expecting it and invite him to say something funny about it being Friday the 13th.