Aaron Brown's Summer Job

aaronbrown Aaron Brown's Summer Job“The good TV and the bad TV were often in conflict,” said Aaron Brown.

It was a recent Wednesday afternoon and the longtime television anchor and correspondent was sitting at a table in Harry’s of Hartsdale, a nearly deserted steakhouse, a few short blocks from his home in Westchester County. He was reflecting on his career.

Mr. Brown was dressed casually, in a short-sleeved black cotton polo, a bit of white stubble standing out on his well tanned chin. He leaned back in his chair and, by way of demonstration, tapped his right shoulder and then tapped his left. The angel speaking into one earpiece, the devil whispering into the other. Covering Hurricane Katrina versus covering Anna Nicole Smith.

Such is the life of cable news anchor, he explained. A life he lived happily from July 2001, when he joined CNN as a news anchor until November 2005, when the cable news channel dumped him for Anderson Cooper. Mr. Brown smiled. Goodbye to all that.

“I don’t sit around and say, I wish I had a show,” said Mr. Brown. “Because I don’t. I’m very happy teaching. If I can do gigs like this one this summer, that’s going to be great.”

He’s anchoring Wide Angle—a PBS documentary show focusing on international affairs, which essentially fills in for Frontline when that program goes on vacation each summer. All told, Mr. Brown will anchor seven episodes, ranging in subject matter from a piece about the atrocities in Darfur to an in-depth look at women’s rights in Afghanistan.

A waiter arrived at the table, and Mr. Brown ordered the lobster bisque and a cappuccino. He seemed like a man who was enjoying not being in too much of a hurry.

He explained that the day before, he had taken the train into Manhattan. Wide Angle is produced by Thirteen-WNET, New York’s flagship PBS station. So he spent the day there in the studio, working on episodes, and marveling at how un-jaded folks are in public television.

“There are a lot of people there who are talented and who haven’t been beaten down yet,” said Mr. Brown. “The staff that I work with, it’s like a different business. They haven’t yet had to do Robert Blake. They haven’t had to go home at night and say, ‘what did I do today? Why did I do that?’”

Which is not to say that Thirteen-WNET is without professional angst. Back in February, Neal Shapiro, the former president of NBC News, officially took over for William Baker as C.E.O. of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (EBC)–the licensee of Thirteen-WNET. Mr. Shapiro arrived at the job, promising to shake up the status-quo, and he has moved quickly. In recent months, Mr. Shapiro has enacted several rounds of layoffs, as he has worked to reorganize the station and to make his production staff more nimble.

At one point last year, when he was the verge of taking over the station, Mr. Shapiro reached out to Mr. Brown to see if there was anything he might be interested in doing at Thirteen-WNET. The two had known each other for a long time. They had worked together years earlier at ABC News. Mr. Shapiro’s wife, Juju Chang, had edited Mr. Brown’s first piece for World News Tonight. And at one point earlier in their careers, they had even lived in the same apartment building in Manhattan.

After much back and forth, the two old colleagues—the television executive looking to speed up his station’s metabolism, and the longtime, breaking-news anchor who was looking to slow down his—found a common interest in the Wide Angle job.

“My immediate reaction was that this is the right length of time,” said Mr. Brown. “It’s a summer job. It’s material I find interesting. And it’s an audience that I haven’t yet offended.”

Mr. Brown said that on the Fourth of July, he and his production crew will jump on a plane to Jordan, where they will spend one week on the ground, shooting material for the final episode of the season, focusing on Iraqi refugees. Typically, the Wide Angle documentaries are done much further in advance. But Mr. Brown said that Mr. Shapiro wanted the station to have the experience of producing one at a much faster clip.

“He pushes people in a constructive way,” said Mr. Brown. “Whether the organization PBS needs to change in a changing media environment, I don’t know. But I think being more topical is a good thing generally.”

The food arrived, and for the next hour, Mr. Brown talked about his career—what he accomplished in the past and what he would still like to do in the near future.

He said that recently, he had teamed up with a producer in Arizona to create a pilot for an hour-long public radio program, which would be a mix of one-on-one interviews and feature stories.

For the pilot, Mr. Brown traveled to Arcosanti, the utopian architectural roadside attraction in the Arizona desert, and interviewed Italian architect Paulo Soleri. “I like to interview people, and I do it well,” said Mr. Brown. “If there were room for one more Charlie Rose….”

The pilot is sill being shopped around. In the meantime, Mr. Brown will continue to teach journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Teaching undergraduates the mechanics of journalism, he says, is not something he believes in. As such, he refuses to teach vocational classes. This fall, he will again teach a class on the history of television news.

The class begins with Mr. Brown showing his students footage of Edward R. Murrow interviewing Marilyn Monroe on CBS’ Person to Person. The lesson is simple. Even the great ones do fluff; even the icons of the business do tabloid. If Mr. Murrow were alive today, he’d be doing stories on Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib, and rendition. But chances are, he’d also be chasing down exclusives with Miley Cyrus.

“At its birth, television news was a child of the entertainment business,” said Mr. Brown. “It will be a child of the entertainment business at its death.”

Mr. Brown said he has grown accustomed to confessing his own journalism sins to his students. Admittedly, he did some tawdry stuff in his day. At ABC, he spent many months of his life covering O.J. Simpson. At CNN, he once spent four straight hours covering actor Robert Blake and the charges that he had murdered his wife. “Four. Fucking. Hours. It was the dumbest four hours ever,” he said. “My wife gave me crap when I came home. I was like, I don’t need this. I’m not feeling good about myself.”

He also likes to tell his students about the time when Princess Diana died and ABC put him on the Concorde to get him to England. When he got to the scene of the accident, he put in his earpiece and Peter Jennings told him: “OK, I’m going to ask you how her death will affect the Labor party.” Mr. Brown had been in the country for 45 minutes. A few days later, Mother Teresa died. Mr. Brown wanted to go. His bosses told him to stay put. The Diana coverage was putting up huge numbers.

There were also moments along the way that make Mr. Brown feel good about the history of television news and proud of his role in it. Until he began teaching, Mr. Brown had never gone back and watched his own coverage of September 11. But his students were curious and persisted and now the footage has become an important and sobering part of the class. A reminder that there are days in American history when anchoring the news of breaking events does matter.

And on those big breaking news days, Mr. Brown still misses it, and momentarily questions his sideline status. When the shootings at Virginia Tech happened, Mr. Brown had only recently left CNN and on that day, he remembers wishing he were back in the studio. “There are some days when you are what you are,” said Mr. Brown. “I was born to be a reporter. But if you are going to do it, you have to be a public person, you have to deal with the silliness tha
t goes on, and you have to worry every night about every quarter hour.”

“If you could just say I want a show on those 25 days that matter—kind of like Brokaw’s got—great,” he added. “But in the cable world you don’t have that luxury… Maybe I got tired. I don’t know. But I don’t miss the day to day of it. I miss days.”