With gravitas and grace, Liz Cheney ‘anchored’ Jan. 6 Committee hearing
Quick suggestion for any television organization looking for a new nightly news anchor: Hire Liz Cheney.
Like the opening episode of many highly anticipated TV programs, the first primetime installment this past week of the House Select Committee’s January 6 hearings was a bit of a jumble. There was a lot of exposition to set up the season-long story arc, and viewers were introduced to a crowded cast of characters — with plenty of hints of more plot twists and guest appearances yet to come.
Multiple story lines often lead to audience confusion — it can be hard to keep track of where things stand and where they’re going. In TV news, that’s where the anchor comes in.
Early on in the development of television, producers understood that viewers needed someone to guide them through what was a quick nightly summary of the day’s events. The front page of a newspaper was different: Readers could take their time scanning the top headlines, page through the first section and stop at reports that interested them. On TV, there was no time for any of that — viewers relied on a news anchor to take them through everything, to connect one story to the next, and make the broadcast feel like a unified whole rather than a random collection of fact, figures and film clips.
Rep. Cheney (R-Wyo.) did that Thursday night in a polished and sober manner that conjured up what the best television professionals do on cable and broadcast.
The committee has reportedly hired James Goldston, former president of ABC News, to help them put together presentations that would carry the primetime programming. Goldston very likely understood that the first hearing could easily dissolve into disorder, with important information and testimony lost on viewers just trying to keep up.
He needed an anchor. That was Cheney.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) also presented well, but Cheney had the tougher TV challenge.
She sought to lay out in clear terms a complex, multi-layered case stripped down to its essentials. Her 20-minute presentation was basically an evening newscast for a national audience focused on one important story.
She also brought what television producers like to call “gravitas” — a vital quality for any successful anchor. It’s that feeling of confidence viewers get watching a particular newscaster deliver the headlines: the sense that he or she knows each story in detail, understands the context, and can be trusted to get it right.
Gravitas can’t be taught, and it really can’t be faked — although you can probably find people trying to do just that on any given news channel most hours of the day. That impression of dignity and poise often comes from the anchor’s career history — for years, most network correspondents had to do tours of duty in war zones and at the White House before getting tapped for the big job. That background helped them develop trust with the audience.
For many watching last Thursday, Cheney’s experience since Jan. 6 conferred that elusive quality of gravitas. As she guided viewers through difficult video and detailed depositions, it was hard not to keep in mind the battles she’s fought within her own party’s hierarchy. That history gave her presentation an understated forcefulness: She didn’t have anything to prove. She wasn’t some ambitious reporter climbing the network ladder, trying too hard to please and impress. She was confident. The camera loves confidence.
There are other key committee members, of course, and they’ll get their turns in the spotlight over the next couple of weeks — as they should. But producers for the committee would be smart to lead each night with Cheney, have her deliver the top headlines and set the table for that night’s episode. She’s what show business calls a “cross-over” talent — appealing to wide segments of an otherwise fractured audience.
When the hearings are finished, Cheney will most likely turn her attention to her re-election campaign in Wyoming. But if, at some point, she considers a possible career change, there are a few high-profile anchor chairs she might find a lot more comfortable than a hot seat in Congress.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.