Finding your rhythm as a rookie anchor in cable news, circa 2009, is in large part about learning to tap your inner outrage. On the night of Tuesday, June 30, Dennis Kneale found his. At the time, the 51-year-old business reporter was several weeks into a tryout, anchoring CNBC’s 8 p.m. hour. He stared at the camera in a TV studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and lambasted the anonymous bloggers who were making fun of him on the Internet for, among other things, his recent and repeated claim that the recession was over. Mr. Kneale called the “digital dickweeds” cowardly and cynical.
“I say dickweed because apparently it is indeed a plant akin to pond scum,” said Mr. Kneale, “and name-calling seems to be the lingua franca of the blogosphere.”
Afterward, Mr. Kneale’s producer told him that his outburst was poetry, the best thing he’d done on the show. The next night, Mr. Kneale returned to the subject. He called the blogosphere the “bitterest realm on earth,” and noted that he didn’t spend much time reading “the vitriol spewing out of these miscreants and these digital imbeciles,” but that, apparently, they were watching him. “Nanny-nanny boo-boo,” said Mr. Kneale.
In the end, it wasn’t as dramatic as Glenn Beck crying. Nor was it as menacing as the anger regularly uncorked by the more robust mega fauna of the cable news tundra like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann. But it was a start. Something to build on.
SINCE JOINING CNBC in the fall of 2007, Mr. Kneale has been working hard to adjust to television. By training and disposition, he is a print guy. He came of age professionally at The Wall Street Journal, where he worked for 16 years, as a reporter and editor. Then he spent another decade at Forbes, eventually serving as the magazine’s managing editor. TV was tricky. His tendency out of the gate was to use too many charts, too many facts, too many details. He liked to think of print journalism as taking a keg full of information and reducing it down to a beer can. Good TV news, he has learned, is even more distilled. It is the first burst of pressurized air flying out of the beer can.
During his first year and a half at CNBC, Mr. Kneale worked alongside several anchors on the tag-team news show Power Lunch. In late April, CNBC executives decided to give him a five night tryout anchoring the 8 p.m. hour. Some 14 weeks later, Mr. Kneale is still in the anchor chair.
“Now they’ve kind of forgotten that it’s just a tryout,” said Mr. Kneale. “Don’t tell them. … It may not last.”
Mr. Kneale was sitting across from The Observer at the Redeye Grill on Seventh Avenue on a recent Monday afternoon, digging into a chopped Asian salad, and mulling the trajectory of his first solo mission in cable news. Mr. Kneale compared the move from Power Lunch to 8 p.m. to his transition a decade or so earlier from The Wall Street Journal, where individual reporters rarely stand out from the larger brand, to Forbes, where individualism was prized. For the first time in his nascent TV career, Mr. Kneale could do his own thing.
“During the day, it’s like what’s happening and what does it mean right then,” said Mr. Kneale. “But at nighttime, there’s a chance to say, ‘Wait a minute, take a breath. No more emails, no more texts, no more headlines. Let’s decide what makes us happy.’”
And, more importantly, what makes you mad.
Over the years, picking a fight with another member of the media has proven to be a reliable staple of the cable news genre. But historically, the strategy has been to “punch up” at a bigger target, not to beat down on pygmy bloggers struggling at the lower rungs of the trade.
Mr. Kneale said his beef with anonymous bloggers was not some phony yelp for attention. “This is not an attempt by me to stand out,” said Mr. Kneale. “It turns out that I stand out anyway. Unfortunately, I have a high obnoxious quotient. I try and reign it in. Maybe one thing new is that at 8 o’clock at night, I don’t have to.”
Mr. Kneale traces his genuine distaste for anonymous online criticism to a cover story he edited at Forbes in the fall of 2007, titled “Hiding Behind the Net.” The article, by Victoria Murphy Barret, revolved around the tragic story of a teenage girl who crashes her father’s Porsche at high speeds on the highway, crushing her to death. Afterward, a mob of anonymous Web users posted police photographs of the girl’s mangled remains on various Internet sites, along with commentary mocking the carnage. When the family eventually attempted to have the photos of their dead daughter removed, they were met with a mix of malice and indifference.
“And Google is allowing that to happen?” said Mr. Kneale. “Because, oh, well, that’s the blogosphere, they’re anonymous. You know what? How dare you? How dare you hurt people like that?”
At one level, Mr. Kneale’s interest in the subject is cerebral. He noted that at The Wall Street Journal, you were not allowed to include ad hominem criticisms without a direct on-the-record comment from a named source—a practice that was deeply ingrained in his journalism ethos. He also argued that government regulation of the Web was not the cure and that eventually the self-interest of large Internet companies would inevitably shift the medium toward more accountability.
AT THE SAME TIME, Mr. Kneale’s reaction to the Forbes story seemed highly visceral. Perhaps that’s because on an emotional level, Mr. Kneale can identify with the family members in the story who had suddenly lost a loved one in a car accident and were struggling to cope. To wit: One night, decades earlier, when Mr. Kneale was 14 years old, his father had been walking home from a bar in their small suburb outside Miami when he was struck and killed by a car.
Mr. Kneale said the sudden loss of his father changed his personality drastically. Beforehand, he had been a shy kid. Afterward, he became more outgoing and pugnacious. “When that happens, you’re like, well, fuck,” said Mr. Kneale. “There’s nothing you can do anymore that’s going to even come close to that. It’s like, ‘Bring it on. What have you got?’”
As a junior in high school, Mr. Kneale wrote a brutal takedown in the student newspaper of his school’s chorus concert. The furious choral director dragged him to the principal’s office. “I wrote the mean review on the record,” said Mr. Kneale. “Not anonymously.”
“My mom taught me, ‘Don’t say something if you can’t say it to somebody’s face,’” said Mr. Kneale. “Now, unfortunately, sometimes I misinterpreted that and I would say bad things to people’s faces. But that was better than, like, stabbing in the back.”
Decades later, Mr. Kneale has managed to channel some of those tumultuous feelings from his teenage years into his first job as a solo news anchor. On Tuesday, July 14, Mr. Kneale added another volume to his anti-anonymous trilogy. This time, he referred to bloggers as “frig-tard” nobodies, and cretins. He said that criticism on the Internet reminded him of a “slam book” that a bunch of mean kids in his hometown had put together in junior high school, anonymously informing one of their classmates, in a rainbow of brightly colored insults, why they hated her.
Shortly thereafter, John Cook of Gawker depicted CNBC reporters as characters in a coming-of-age summer movie, and described Mr. Kneale as “Alex P. Keaton with a receding hairline.” “He’s putting his lunch money in the market,” he wrote, “reading Atlas Shrugged, and patiently waiting for the day when he will make you all pay for dipping his retainer in the toilet.”
Mr. Kneale can live with that. “At least that report has a byline on it,” said Mr. Kneale. “John Cook. Good for him. It has the value of being funny … instead of this lowest mean, stupid stuff.”
So was Mr. Kneale ever bullied as a kid? “I can neither confirm nor deny bullying,” said Mr. Kneale. “I was no captain of my football team.”
As he finished his salad, Mr. Kneale grew reflective for a moment. “I think CNBC brass probably wishes I had not used ‘dickweeds,’” said Mr. Kneale. “But they haven’t said, ‘Don’t do that.’ Which is really excellent.”
“Hell, I don’t know how much longer they’ll let me do it,” he added. “But man, I’m gonna have quite a great DVD collection by the time it’s over.”
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