The Andy Rooney era has ended. He gave his valedictory 60 Minutes appearance on October 2, 2011. When he began in the summer of 1978, I was preparing to enter college, Carter was president, and Johnny Carson was wildly popular. Now we are what we are, and Andy is 92.
I was always ambivalent toward him: Though he was open about his political and religious principles with a candor rare in media folk, they were still awful principles. His humor, though, reminded one of the cranky old uncles everyone in 1930s comedies seemed to have. Despite his self-proclaimed atheism and liberalism, Rooney was very much a creature of his time. His views on homosexuality got him in trouble, and he was forced very publicly to recant them. He was perhaps referring to this issue when he said in his last speech that sometimes he had been very wrong, but that he had been right more often than he was wrong. Rooney epitomized the sort of TV my generation grew up with: Not only did he work for Arthur Godfrey, he remained friendly with that notoriously difficult individual until Godfrey’s death in 1983—of course, by Rooney’s own admission, he himself was not easy to get on with, either. In his old age, Rooney looked like a withered little gnome; but he had been quite an adventurous army journalist in WWII. I remember his stories on the air back in 1994 about the joyous end of WWII, when, as he put it, “only a sissy couldn’t get a girl.”
As Rooney’s star sets, another is fast rising—that of Anderson Cooper. Longtime journalist for CNN, he serves concurrently as a 60 Minutes correspondent and as host of his new talk show, Anderson. He first came to my attention when serving as substitute host for Regis Philbin (another TV stalwart retiring this year) on Live! While newscasters of the old regime maintained an appearance of serene distance from the stories they reported, Cooper emotes. Boy, does he emote. At times he sheds almost as many tears as House Assembly Speaker John Boehner. His manner on his talk show reminds me of the late lamented Virginia Graham.
I bear Anderson no ill will. Although gay, he has strenuously avoided beating the drum for gay causes. As he has said, “The whole thing about being a reporter is that you’re supposed to be an observer and to be able to adapt with any group you’re in, and I don’t want to do anything that threatens that.” Cooper has piled up an impressive body of work and has shown bravery in the unpleasant places news stories have sometimes led him. Worse still, his father died when he was 21, his brother committed suicide, and his mother is Gloria Vanderbilt—enough difficulty for anyone. Despite all of this, he has managed to put together a creditable career and a reputation for integrity.
What is annoying about Anderson—his emotionalism, his informality, his slightly effeminate manner—is more symptomatic of his generation of mediosos. In contrast to their predecessors, today’s newsboys lack not merely gravitas and style, but maturity. It is hard to imagine the nation, afflicted by some great woe, turning to Cooper and his generation as they once did to Cronkite. It is hard to imagine any of these lads inspiring the public with the same unquestioning trust in their probity as did those who came before—even if, as with Cooper, that trust might be deserved.
Reality was quite different back then. Rooney’s views we know about; the seemingly genial Godfrey was a manipulative tyrant; Cronkite’s apparent impartiality masked a very particular agenda; and on and on. Is not Cooper’s wearing of his heart on his sleeve a refreshing change, and the ideological openness of Fox News and MSNBC an improvement over the faux-neutrality of yore?
Maybe so. And maybe the fragmenting of entertainment and news via television and the Internet into a million specially interested sites is a good thing, slowly eating away the false and stifling consensus of ages past. Certainly, those (such as myself) with decidedly minority views are able to get a far wider hearing than we ever could before—alongside a million others of equal marginality.
I still miss the old order, when a handful of stations produced a televised news and entertainment frame of reference to which all of us could connect in some degree. I miss when broadcasters appeared reliable, knowledgeable, and grown-up, rather than as perplexed and flawed as their viewers. I miss when there were standards that transcended opinion.
Illusory or not, those days are gone, and all of us, whether young, middle-aged, or old must deal with life as it is. That being the case, I wish Messrs. Rooney and Philbin well in their retirement and pray that Andy may discover spiritual and temporal wisdom in his dotage. But to Anderson and his peers, I offer advice couched as prayer: Please, boys, butch it up!
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