Aaron Brown’s ‘Weird’ Science

Wednesday, April 9

Aaron Brown is having a strange war.

Even in peacetime, the quirky CNN anchor possesses one of television’s true love-him-or-loathe-him personalities. Mr. Brown’s reflective, stream-of-consciousness style can make you think he’s articulating exactly what you’re feeling-or make you incredulously fling a cushioned object at the yapmaster on the screen.

But since the war began, Mr. Brown’s been on the air for three weeks straight, with barely a day off. Sometimes, amid the endless wave of embed reports, expert analysis and grainy battlefield footage, he’s had his Jerry Lewis telethon moments, where he’s exhausted and a little giddy, there’s open time to fill, and his tongue and mind wander as if controlled by a separate force.

Aaron Brown can be the Midnight Rambler. He knows this.

“There are times-I have had moments-where there was nothing, ” Mr. Brown said from the CNN Center in Atlanta the other day. “We had no place to go. There was no guest booked. There was no embed phoning in. My preference in that moment is to say, ‘Let’s everybody have a quiet six minutes.’ But that is not an option. There is only one option-that’s to talk. And I’m sitting there and my left brain is going, ‘God, just shut up .'”

Of course, no television misdeed goes unpunished, and Mr. Brown has been roasted a bit by the critics. A New York Times critic popped him for being “mawkish.” The Boston Globe called him “weird.” A column in The Nation bonked Mr. Brown for “bathetic musings” and “embarrassing commentary.” When Mr. Brown’s hours were mercifully cut back, a report in the New York Post suggested he was pushed aside to make more room for colleague Paula Zahn. (Not true, said CNN.) Even the war protesters in Atlanta razz Mr. Brown-along with George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and the military-industrial complex.

It might surprise you, then, that three weeks in, Mr. Brown remains a confident and contented man.

“My relationship is not with the people who write about TV,” he said. “My relationship is with viewers. And I’ve looked at the numbers, and I know the research, and I’m really comfortable.”

He’s not going to say the criticism doesn’t sting. “I’m not nearly as thick-skinned as maybe I ought to be, but that’s the nature of the job and I accept that,” he said. “I asked someone else who does this for a living at a higher salary, ‘Do you ever get used to this stuff?’ and he said, ‘No.'”

But Mr. Brown’s been up and down this love-him/loathe-him road before, first as a local anchor in Seattle, then later as the host of ABC News’s acquired-taste insomniac news show, World News Now . After Sept. 11-his CNN debut was that morning, the burning World Trade Center in the background-he was praised for being one of the few anchors to articulate the doubt and fear so many people in his audience were feeling. Mr. Brown was the neo-anchor, unafraid to show his human side or speak in polysyllables.

Mr. Brown believes he’s the same guy now, as he talks with CNN battlefield correspondents or sits with CNN analyst Gen. Wesley Clark. “I am who I am on TV,” he said. “I’m not particularly different on and off.”

Whupped by Fox News, CNN is in the process of reinventing itself for what seems like the 36th time in the past half decade, and Mr. Brown said he feels comfortable with his place in the network. After a period of power migration to New York-Mr. Brown’s regular 10 p.m. show, Newsnight , is usually headquartered there, as is Ms. Zahn’s American Morning -the network’s Atlanta base is reasserting itself. The network’s new boss, Jim Walton, is a longtime Atlanta executive, and the bulk of network operations have always been there. Even old CNN chief Tom Johnson has been seen around the shop lately, offering advice to staff.

Mr. Brown was a fan of (and had a fan in) former CNN president Walter Isaacson, but he thinks Newsnight will have a place in the new CNN, whatever that is.

“New York was a place where shows were done,” Mr. Brown said. “It was not a place where decisions were made. Atlanta is where all the wires go for CNN.”

One of the shows in New York was Connie Chung Tonight . Mr. Brown was asked what he thought of Ms. Chung’s sudden departure after her show was yanked and she learned she would not play a major role in anchoring the network’s war coverage.

“Oh goodness,” Mr. Brown said, briefly doing a Rumsfeld. “I don’t know. It wasn’t my decision. Connie’s a friend and I like her and I’m sure it was difficult for her not to be involved in the central coverage of the war.” Then he added: “This sounds a bit cold, but it’s kind of the nature of the business: New managers come in, they want to do what they want to do for the reasons they want to do them. I’m in the business of doing programs when I get the opportunity to do them-and that’s what I try to do.”

That’s what he does. And if he babbles on from time to time; don’t worry, the babbler is aware.

“I get it,” he said. “People who don’t think I get it are nuts. But sometimes you just don’t have any choice based on what’s available to you-or not available to you-in a situation as comfortable as this one.”

Believe it or not, when Mr. Brown goes back to his Atlanta hotel room after a long night of war coverage, he doesn’t want to listen to himself, either. Like a few nights ago, after a particularly rough show.

“I just sat on the couch in the hotel room and listened to blessed silence,” Aaron Brown said. “No one was screaming in my ear. No one was telling me, ‘Fill!’ or ‘Do this-do that!’ It was just quiet. There was a glass of ice on one side and a bottle of vodka on the other and I thought, ‘This is a little pathetic-but it’s peaceful.'”

More Aaron Brown tonight on CNN. [CNN, 10, 10 p.m.]

Thursday, April 10

One of the many people hit particularly hard by the sudden death of NBC correspondent David Bloom on April 6 was NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker, the former Today executive producer whose relationship with Bloom began when the reporter was just getting started at the network, filing regular reports from NBC’s Miami affiliate.

“When I took over the Today show in 1992, we used him on almost a daily basis,” Mr. Zucker said. “None of the big network correspondents wanted to be doing pieces for the Today show the next morning, because it mean they would have to work late at night. So we’d end up going to David Bloom.

“He was ambitious, and he was good. He was doing a piece a night for us, and he wasn’t even a network correspondent yet. He was terrific-and that’s what got him the network job in 1993 in Chicago.”

Mr. Bloom later moved on to Los Angeles, where Mr. Zucker said he “really made his mark” covering the O.J. Simpson trial. “I don’t think it’s any accident that this guy stood out in every major story he covered,” he said. “He was the guy I always wanted on the big story. I requested that he cover the ’96 Presidential campaign. I wanted him to go to the White House. I wanted him to go to the Sydney Olympics for the Today show. Whenever there was a big story, you wanted Bloom there. He was the guy.”

Eventually, Mr. Zucker helped talk Bloom into anchoring the weekend edition of Today .

“It required some convincing, because he was afraid that’s not what reporters did,” Mr. Zucker said. “That’s not entirely true-there’s been no better reporter in the past 25 years than Tom Brokaw, who went to the Today show and then the Nightly News , and Katie Couric was a first-rate Pentagon reporter who went to the Today show. But the perception is that real reporters don’t do that. We’d have a lot of talks about it.

“Quite frankly, he wasn’t the greatest anchor when he first sat in that chair,” Mr. Zucker continued. “But very few people are. It was only in these last 18 months that he’d grown into it so well. He became that rare combination of a great reporter and an incredibly promising anchor.

“He was 39 years old. He was as good a reporter as any in his generation. There was no question that there were many great things ahead of him.”

On NBC this morning, Today . [WNBC, 4, 7 a.m.]

Friday, April 11

Jules Asner’s in town. You know Jules Asner: She’s the happy brunette who’s on the E! Channel every five seconds, it seems. She used to be the Wild on E! girl, and she also did the E! NewsLive , and now she hosts her own show, Revealed with Jules Asner , a perfectly pleasant interview show with all the hot young newsmakers from the world of entertainment.

We met Ms. Asner the other day at the City Bakery. She’s in the process of moving into Chelsea, and moving’s never fun-plus the night before, some freak had plugged a television set into an outlet on the sidewalk outside her apartment and watched the tube-but she was happy to be in New York. She’s been living in L.A. for years, but since she bops around the globe to do her interviews, she can pretty much live anywhere.

Ms. Asner gets asked a lot if she sees herself as the next Barbara Walters, but she does not.

“I want to be the next Bob Costas,” she said. “I think he’s so well informed, and I also like his mix of sports and entertainment.” Ms. Asner said she’d been lobbying E! to try to put together an athlete interview show in addition to Revealed .

Still, she did admire Ms. Walters. “She can ask something where someone at a junket or myself would ask and they’d be like, ‘I’m not answering that,'” she said.

Ms. Asner was being a little tough on herself. She’s managed to get a number of stars to open up about themselves, and she’s learned to ask the tough questions, too. That was still a little hard, she said. “People expect they can ask a celebrity a question and expect an answer to something they wouldn’t ask their best friend,” she said.

Ms. Asner said that when she first started doing Revealed , the people behind the show wanted her to ask stars how they lost their virginity. She said she wouldn’t do it.

“I don’t want to tell anybody about me losing my virginity,” she said. “It’s just not a good story. It’s never a good story.”

Ms. Asner knows a thing or two about getting asked a personal question. People like to ask about her boyfriend, the director Steven Soderbergh. But she would rather not talk about it.

“I never talk about my personal life,” she said. “It’s something we’re both not comfortable talking about. It’s weird to have people know, or ask.”

Why was it weird? They seem like an interesting combo, those two.

“We’re not famous,” she said. “We’re not movie stars. Why would people care?”

As for her Wild on E! days, Ms. Asner was happy to discuss those, even if she didn’t seem to miss them much. She said that contrary to the party-girl persona she crafted on that show, she goes to bed early. Wild on E! was a tough grind: In a year and half, she did 40 shows in 25 countries.

“If I went somewhere and there was a dance, I got to learn the dance, and I would drink the drink,” she said. “‘We’re in _________, and I’m drinking the drink.”

Ms. Asner was in New York and happy to not have to do that sort of thing anymore.

“This is what I want to do,” she said of Revealed . “I just want to do more, and be better.”

Tonight on E!, True Hollywood Story: The Curse of Poltergeist . It’s true! Whatever happened to that guy Steven Spielberg, who produced and wrote it? [E!, 24, 9 p.m.]

Saturday, April 12

If Comedy Central’s programming executives aren’t already going to hell for Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn , which makes the blubbering Real Time with Bill Maher look like the Algonquin round table, it’s certainly going to hell for Knee-High P.I. , its planned detective comedy starring little people. Here’s a Comedy Central “fact sheet” and marketing strategy, which was supplied with a recent casting call for the show:

” Knee-High P.I. is the bargain of the century-Hank Dingo is half the size and twice the service. Dingo, a thirty-something height-challenged private eye, is charming, abrasive, manipulative, and most importantly, hilarious. Viewers will follow Dingo on his missions; Dingo’s methods are unrefined, his behavior is totally unpredictable and yet, he always manages to solve the crime and get the girl.

“National Marketing Promotion:

“Comedy Central is auditioning for four openings to act as guides/entertainers in the $100,000 Knee High P.I. Scavenger Hunt in New York City on Saturday, September 27th.

“The little people will be paid for their services, which will include a total of 6-8 hours:

*Meet and greet Sweepstakes Winners the day before the hunt or at the Movie Premiere (2 hours)

*Attend and participate in the Scavenger Hunt (4 hours)

“Playing off of the movie’s plot, the sweepstakes will provide the opportunity for four winners and their guests to scavenge NY for “Missing Lawn Jockeys,” each worth $25,000. Each team has the chance to win up to $100,000 and will be assisted by their own Knee High P.I. The little people will add an element of fun to the event and should be willing to play along as private investigators.”

Good grief. We think we’re going to hell just for publishing that. “Missing Lawn Jockeys”? It’s hard to know where to begin being astonished.

Tonight on Comedy Central, South Park . We liked Comedy Central when it was a classy channel-you know, with puke, fart and Brian Boitano jokes and stuff. [COM, 45, 10 p.m.]

Sunday, April 13

Tonight on HBO, episode 7 of Six Feet Under . Enough already with the dream sequences, peeps-this show’s turning into St. Elsewhere . [HBO, 32, 9 p.m.]

Monday, April 14

Have you noticed that MSNBC’s razzle-dazzle Iraq set includes a stern portrait of George W. Bush in the background, and when anchor Lester Holt’s sitting at his desk, it looks like a little mini-President Bush is whispering into his ear? It does! Also, what’s with that Iraq floor map, MSNBC? It looks like you’re playing Twister. “Put your right foot on Basra, your left foot on Kuwait City, and your left hand on Nasiriya …. ” [MSNBC, 43, all day]

Tuesday, April 15

Tonight on NBC, drop that Razor Scooter, grab an 18-month-old copy of Entertainment Weekly and kick back with the back-from-the-crypt Watching Ellie. [WNBC, 4, 9:30 p.m.]