Peter Bart: Cable News Needs To Recruit New Anchors Amid Fears Centrist Hosts Won’t Fly

News junkies this week are agitated over the disappearance of CNN’s Reliable Sources, but cable news network chiefs have a deeper concern: the disappearance of reliable anchors.

Ratings of news shows continue to plunge as programmers struggle to figure out what sort of host (and ideology) would appeal to their once formidable audiences. Power players like John Malone have proposed that viewers might welcome a return to centrist personalities rather than shrill advocates like Sean Hannity.

Skeptics counter that there is no “middle” in America anymore: Witness the list of missing hosts like Brian Williams, Chris Wallace or Chris Cuomo. Or Brian Stelter, the abrupt, speed-talking host of Reliable Sources, who tried to find fragments of truth amid the rhetorical debris.

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Centrist personalities like Michael Bloomberg increasingly find themselves drawn into firestorms like Florida’s “Stop Woke Act”; witness his fiery attack of Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed pages. Under Florida’s initiative, Bloomberg argues, politicians will ban any teaching that “could make students feel guilty about history as it relates to race or gender.”

Given the “hard right’s” definition of “guilt,” this bill could have a sweeping impact on school curricula, Bloomberg warns.

The turnover of news anchors, and the ambiguity of their replacements, have played havoc with news ratings on all the networks, with CNN suffering the biggest losses. Viewer fatigue over Ukraine has added to the problem.

The networks’ tactical response has been confusing. CNN has been rotating hosts in the once key Cuomo spot (Cuomo last month signed a deal with NewsNation). MSNBC has followed the awkward strategy of assigning the solo Monday 9 p.m. slot to Rachel Maddow, with Alex Wagner stepping in the rest of the week and struggling to pump up the decibels.

Veteran anchorAn anchor isn’t like a Disneyland tour guide. There has to be a point of view amid this madness.

Fox’s ratings have shown the highest survival rate, but even Hannity, always rabid in his rhetoric, has reflected a distinct wobble. Meanwhile, viewers wonder how CNN will ultimately replace war-weary veterans like Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer.

One veteran anchor, who doesn’t want to be quoted, argues that the search for a centrist symbol is destined for failure. “An anchor isn’t like a Disneyland tour guide,” he asserts. “There has to be a point of view amid this madness.”

Or, failing that, a beguiling personality. In their time, Walter Cronkite became a dependable parental figure, Edward R. Murrow represented cool-headed, yet elegant, perspective.

While Reliable Sources, in its lifetime, tried to provide insight into the strategies of network chiefs, silence prevails today about their future direction. MSNBC’s new president Rashida Jones is mega-cautious during rare interactions with journalists. CNN’s new chief, Chris Licht, insists he is still studying the landscape.

Fox News has always been belligerent in defense of its profit-driven strategy but has grown fretful about mounting threats of litigation. Even Lachlan Murdoch has set aside his above-it-all posture by filing a lawsuit against an Australian news website which claimed links between the Murdoch family and the January 6 Capitol riots.

Since Stelter isn’t on hand to make guesses, mystery persists about the ultimate direction of the news networks. On a personal note, my own preferences seem pre-determined. I grew up with a father devoted to the left and a mother to the right. They even read different newspapers.

Their political disagreements were both informed and transactional. I felt their ultimate decisions reflected greater depth and perspective than those of Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson.

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