The Scrapbook is not in the habit of closely following show biz gossip—well, not too closely. Still, we couldn’t help but notice that the Manhattan media world is abuzz about the return of Andrew Lack, after several years’ absence, as chief of NBC News. This, in itself, is of no particular significance, except that Lack, among other things, must soon decide what to do about Brian Williams.
As everybody knows, Williams, who was anchorman for the NBC Nightly News until this past February, was suspended for six months for serial fabrications and temporarily replaced by another NBC news reader named Lester Holt. Here’s the dilemma: The six-month suspension ends in August, and Lester Holt seems to be doing just fine—but Andrew Lack is an old friend and professional patron of Brian Williams. So what should he do?
From The Scrapbook’s perspective, the answer is obvious: Brian Williams is damaged goods, Lester Holt seems equal to the task, and business is business. But far be it from The Scrapbook to tell NBC what to do. Our assumption is that the television networks pay people like Andrew Lack (and Brian Williams) millions of dollars to make these difficult decisions.
And truth be told, The Scrapbook doesn’t care who reads the script into the camera on the NBC Nightly News—or any television news broadcast, for that matter. For if the Brian Williams saga has done anything at all, it has revealed, once again, the basic inanity of the star system that seems to govern network news reading.
The well-compensated individuals lucky enough to get the gig are invested with an authority and omniscience that is almost wholly imaginary. Some of the more pretentious ones—CBS’s Dan Rather, for example, or the late Peter Jennings (ABC) and Walter Cronkite (CBS)—liked to call themselves “reporters” and travel to hotspots or spectacles to prove it. But their function, then and now, was not journalism, exactly, but closer to acting: to read a script written by somebody else, preferably without stumbling. Over time the names and faces have appeared—John Chancellor (NBC), Katie Couric (CBS), Frank Reynolds (ABC), Connie Chung (CBS), ad infinitum—and just as quickly disappeared.
Indeed, The Scrapbook would assume that someone of the age and experience of Andrew Lack might remember Arnold Zenker. The Scrapbook recalls him with affection. In April 1967, when the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) went on strike against the networks, the CBS Evening News reader, Walter Cronkite, unexpectedly joined the picket line, leaving management in the lurch. All the other available anchormen were on the AFTRA picket line as well, and so, with hours left until the evening broadcast, a 28-year-old CBS programming middle manager named Arnold Zenker—earnest, bespectacled, completely inexperienced—was recruited, and thrown on the air, to replace Cronkite.
And he did just as well as Lester Holt is doing. For two weeks, Arnold Zenker sat down every evening at the anchor desk, read a script into the camera—and, as he later recalled, “I’d just say, ‘Good night, fellas,’ and go home.” The ratings remained stable, the advertisers were happy, Americans got their news, and the Republic survived. The only problem is that the CBS brass was so relieved when Walter Cronkite came back that they failed to grasp the lesson they had been taught by Arnold Zenker.