As NBC's Mudd Slides Again, ABC Makes News with Jennings

updated 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For Roger Mudd, it was a time for remembrance of humiliations too recently past, but for the TV news industry his fall was just one shock in a week of turmoil. Frank Reynolds had died unexpectedly at 59, and scarcely had colleagues and competitors finished paying their last respects than NBC announced it was dumping Mudd as co-anchor of its Nightly News, leaving Tom Brokaw alone at the top. No sooner had that shoe been clunkingly dropped than reports began to circulate that ABC News President Roone Arledge had decided to elevate Peter Jennings to sole anchor on World News Tonight Should he do so, the networks would each be sending a single champion into the casualty-strewn lists of evening-news combat for only the second time since national news shows expanded to 30 minutes in the 1960s.

The pitting of Dan Rather, Brokaw and Jennings against one another promises an intriguing September spectacle. But to many admirers of the Washington-based Mudd, who has endured his second professional embarrassment in three years (as heir apparent to Walter Cronkite at CBS, he was passed over in favor of Rather and never worked for the network again), NBC's decision smacked of a triumph of style over journalistic maturity. "It shocked me," confesses veteran CBS correspondent Robert Pierpoint. "The only rumor I had heard was about six months ago—that it was Brokaw who was the weaker of the two, and that if a change had to be made, Tom would probably be dropped."

Why then is NBC gambling on the New York-based Brokaw, whom NBC News President Reuven Frank called a "marginally" better choice for the job? Explains Frank, "The two-man, two-city format was not working well for easy comprehensibility."

Ironically, in his long-term 1981 NBC contract, Mudd was guaranteed the sole anchor spot if John Chancellor were to step down, but he agreed to accept Brokaw as his co-anchor in April 1982. After his dismissal, a pro as always, he licked his wounds in silence. It was left to his wife, E.J., to put this latest disappointment in perspective. "The decision lacked originality," she says. "Of course, that doesn't take away the pain anymore than getting hit twice by a truck makes it easier the second time around."

Mudd, highly respected for his intellectual depth and political expertise but sometimes criticized for a lack of on-camera flash, is the most prominent casualty of the networks' battle for TV news preeminence—a battle destined to be forever fought but never won. As Edward R. Murrow observed long ago, TV news is an "incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each is a rather bizarre and demanding profession—and when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles."

Last month's turnover, however, seemed to confirm at least one TV news trend: the decline of the avuncular, soberly reassuring veteran anchorman, embodied by Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, John Chancellor, Reynolds and, to some extent, Mudd, in favor of a younger, brasher, sexier breed. To some TV newsmen, who view the plum anchor position as a reward for heavy journalistic dues-paying, the new standards seem shallow. "When people are scared, they make decisions that reflect fear," says PBS's Jim Lehrer of the Mudd dethronement. "I just hope broadcast journalism can survive this kind of craziness."

It has been suggested in some quarters that Brokaw's appeal is cosmetic. Yet though most observers credit Mudd with superior journalistic skills, Brokaw earned his way to the top with more than a decade in the field, including three years covering the White House for NBC. As for Jennings, originally denigrated as a glamourcaster during his first stint as an anchor with ABC in the mid-'60s, he seems finally to have overcome first impressions. The Canadian-born son of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation vice-president, he debuted on radio at age 10 and hosted a teenage dance party on TV at 19. But Jennings has distinguished himself as a foreign correspondent and London-based co-anchor. "He's highly knowledgeable—not just a quick study like some of these guys," says Barbara Matusow, author of The Evening Stars, a just-published chronicle of the network news wars.

Viewers seem to agree. Since July 4, when Jennings began filling in for the ailing Reynolds in Washington, ABC has moved into a tie for second place in the ratings behind Rather's CBS Evening News. With Ted Koppel out of the running in the face of Nightline's low ratings, according to an ABC source, and Chicago-based Max Robinson reportedly on the outs with network executives, Jennings became the obvious choice.

Not that he now has it made, by any means. Matusow, for one, wonders if Jennings' Canadian background and coolly cerebral personality will hold up against Brokaw's South Dakota-bred, boy-next-door charm. "Jennings has a great big liability," she says. "He doesn't look, sound or act like Middle America, and the news is aimed at Middle America."

For the time being, at least, Jennings' star has risen—just as Mudd's has descended. Insiders differ in their explanation for his downfall, some suggesting that viewers respond more strongly to on-the-scene journalists such as Rather or Jennings than to desk-bound specialists like Mudd. Mudd's reluctance to leave his beat and his family, in contrast to the globetrotting Rather, is said to have hurt his chances in the CBS anchor derby. "He's a limited man," says an ABC executive. "For him, the sun rises and sets on the Capitol."

TV analyst John Bowen sees the issue in terms of Mudd's somewhat pedagogical TV personality. "Every time Mudd has been tried out as a major anchor, it becomes clear that he doesn't light the fire in the belly of the viewers," he says. "In the entertainment business, there are always the great stars, and the second rank of stars who never really climb the heights." In retrospect, the skids seem to have been greased for Mudd by the forced resignation last year of NBC News President Bill Small, who had brought Mudd with him from CBS.

Despite the loss of his anchor position, Mudd "is probably going to stay with NBC for a while, sort of tread water and see how things go," according to a close Washington friend. "He wants to be the chief political reporter for the Presidential election, which could tap his interest for the next year and a half." Mudd has not publicly expressed interest in the ABC anchor spot should Jennings fail—though he is keeping his options open. Most network observers doubt he would be considered for it anyway. Says one longtime watcher of the network wars, "You think Roone Arledge is going to give the top job to someone who has been rejected by two networks?"

Even if Arledge did, chances are Mudd has an insufficient appetite for self-flagellation to risk being slighted by all three networks. The bottom line may be that while attaining solo anchorhood is the best of all possible worlds, almost getting there is one of the worst. And no man alive knows that better than Roger Mudd.

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