Eric Burns, the impeccably fair-and-balanced host of Fox News Channel’s "Fox News Watch" (Saturdays at 6:30 p.m.) has had a long and successful career in broadcast journalism. Though he never achieved his dream job of hosting NBC’s "Today" show, he worked as a correspondent for NBC News, appearing regularly on "NBC Nightly News" and "Today" before joining Fox.
Along the way, the Pittsburgh-area native and 1967 Westminster College grad became known as one of the best writers in TV journalism. Not only has he written for magazines like Reader’s Digest, The Weekly Standard and Spy, he’s authored five books, including this spring’s "Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism," which is a lively history of the vulgarity, lies, partisanship and bias that filled colonial newspapers.
I talked to Burns by telephone Thursday as he was finishing preparation for this week’s show:
Does the debut of Katie Couric symbolize the end of nightly news as we’ve known it?
Eric Burns: No. I think that’s too extreme a statement. When I was a correspondent for NBC many years ago, Barbara Walters was hired away from NBC to be a co-anchor on the ABC evening news with Harry Reasoner. They debuted on a Monday. The following Tuesday, David Brinkley opened with these four words: "Good evening. Welcome back." In other words, he was acknowledging there was a powerful curiosity factor that would have cost NBC and CBS ratings on Monday night, but that after the curiosity was exhausted — and he thought it would be quickly — the viewers would be back.
Here is the problem Couric has: Brian Williams is a celebrity in the journalistic mold. Charlie Gibson is a celebrity in the journalistic mold. In other words, there is a certain substance to the way we perceive both of them. Katie Couric, however — and I’m not talking about the person she is but the way she is being presented — is a celebrity in a move-star or rock-video kind of way. Again, that’s the way she’s been presented. So there is a suggestion of superficiality in her image. Her toughest problem might be that she is more of a celebrity — a certain kind of celebrity — than Gibson and Williams, who I think eventually, or immediately, will both beat her in the ratings.
Speaking of Brinkley and Cronkite and those boys back in the ’60s and ’70s, do you think the nightly newscasts of those days were overrated?
Burns: Well, it was powerful, at least compared to today. You I’m sure know Lyndon Johnson’s famous line: “We’ve lost Cronkite.” Cronkite has said something that was negative about the war in Vietnam. Johnson was appalled. He said, “Well, we’ve lost Cronkite. We’ve probably lost America,” or words to that effect. I don’t think George Bush would say that about the comment of any individual anchor today. He might be upset about it, but he wouldn’t think the anchor has enough power to influence public opinion or that the anchor was in fact reflecting public opinion.
They were all newsmen first, news people first, before they became anchors.
Burns: John Chancellor, when I started at NBC, called me into his office and asked me, "What do you want to do here eventually?" I told him I wanted to anchor the ‘Today’ show. And he said here’s what you have to do: "You have to spend four or five years in one of the regional bureaus — Chicago or someplace like that. Then you go abroad to a secondary bureau like Paris or Rome. Then you come home and you have several years in a secondary position in Washington. Then you go abroad for a few more years and you are a correspondent in London, the main foreign bureau. Then you come home and do the White House or State Department for four or five years. And then when you are 20 or so years into it, you will have the gravitas to anchor one of the shows." Well, it’s certainly not like that any more.
You don’t give away much on the air. You’re pretty good at playing the middle — the centrist. Can you tell us what your politics are, generally?
Burns: No. I won’t do that because that’s not what I’m paid for at Fox. There are a lot of people who do give their political opinions on the air. And I make it a point — and a point of pride — to have people not know my politics. I don’t think they are relevant to a show that analyzes the news, so I prefer to keep them to myself off the air, as I do on.
The truth is, I have been hosting "News Watch" for eight years. Not once in eight years — that’s 400 shows — has anyone said to me, "You’ve got to put this in the show." … There is simply no interference with "Fox News Watch." I have never been asked by anyone who works in any capacity at Fox what my politics are and I have never heard a comment from anyone in any capacity at Fox about anything I’ve said on the air.
And that’s the thing a lot of people who write about Fox don’t like to hear, because they make assumptions about bias that I — in eight years of hosting a show about the media — have never once personally encountered. They don’t like to hear that, I suppose, because they don’t believe it.
What’s your pet criticism of news media today? Things aren’t balanced, there’s a liberal bias, too much frivolity?
Burns: I think there’s a much greater problem than political bias. I see political bias both ways. I don’t tend to see as much of it as some people do. To me, the two main biases that affect television news are a bias toward simplicity — stripping a story of its necessary nuance — and toward sensationalism, making a story that really isn’t that important seem as if it is. Those are the two primary and most deleterious biases operating in television news today.
Have you seen that in coverage of Iraq?
A: Maybe simplicity a little, which is somewhat endemic to television, because there isn’t that much time and we need pictures for everything. But no. I don’t think Iraq is a good example of what I’m talking about. John Mark Karr is a good example of what I’m talking about. But when we cover really serious stories, when we cover the violence in the Middle East, when we cover the war in Iraq, the gravity of the story tends to force us into doing our best work. But it’s the slower news times when we are more prone to be sensational. And it’s when the story is very complex, for instance, the roots of what’s going on in the Middle East, that we tend to simplify. We can certainly cover the day’s action very well. But we don’t do nearly as well at helping people to understand why there is such violence and how far the roots go.
When you were researching "Infamous Scribblers," what was the most surprising thing you found?
Burns: That Samuel Adams, who is so venerated a figure and so estimable a brand of beer, was probably the least ethical journalist this country ever had; that he so wanted America to separate from Great Britain, either politically or militarily, that he was willing to write lies and he was willing to incite violence. He used his newspaper, the Boston Gazette, the way soldiers used muskets — as a weapon, not as a means of communication.
The second biggest surprise was that George Washington, who we think of in Garry Wills’ phrase, "the original marble man," was the most savaged man in the history of American journalism.
And that’s where the phrase “infamous scribblers” comes from?
Burns: Yes, Washington was so upset by the coverage that he got that he referred to reporters at one point as a bunch of “infamous scribblers.” It’s just extraordinary. You read everything that was written about Washington in those times and you come away feeling sympathy for him. The notion of being sympathetic for someone so heroic seems preposterous but it happens when you read all the coverage of Washington.
So things back then weren’t so fair and balanced in the press in those days?
Burns: There was no fairness and balance and there was no sense that there should be fairness and balance. A person owned a printing press. He thought he was entitled to do anything he wanted with it, just as a blacksmith who owned a forge was entitled to do with it what he wanted to do.
You say Ben Franklin, Sam Adams and Alexander Hamilton were big-time journalists of the day. Would either any or all of them be working for The New York Times or Fox News today?
Burns: Sam Adams would be working for Fox News, because the immediacy of television would appeal to him. Ben Franklin would try to work for both, because he would love the substance of print but he would love the visual aspect of television when he covered science stories. Hamilton, I think, would just work for The New York Times. Hamilton was very academic in his leanings and in his writings. He was a man of ideas. I don’t think he would have had any concern whatsoever for illustrating his stories. His stories were all about ideas and ideas don’t inherently have pictures that attach to them.