CNN anchor Aaron Brown was unceremoniously relieved of his anchor duties in November 2005, replaced with Anderson Cooper in a sudden push — but he remained under contract to CNN, legally enjoined from taking a job with a competing network and precluded from speaking with the media. That contract, which began in September 2001 — shortly before Brown was rushed to his first night of air on September 11th — finally expired on July 1st, leaving Brown free to do and say whatever he wishes.
"I'm much clearer on what I don't want to do," Brown told ETP earlier this week. "I don't want to anchor a cable news program." Brown, who spoke to us from his home in Westchester, has enjoyed his time off from the TV news scene, spending a semester as the John J. Rhodes Chair in Public Policy and American Institutions at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, delivering speeches, and playing a lot of golf. "There's nothing like getting paid - it's even better to get paid and not go to work," said Brown, clearly enjoying the freedom ("I'm having a great day").
And he has no need to go back. "I did it the way I wanted to do it," he says of his program, "NewsNight with Aaron Brown," which ran from September 11, 2001 to November 7, 2005. Brown's last show was on October 28, 2005 — after an awkward month-long co-anchoring stint with Anderson Cooper following the latter's star turn during Katrina — and before Brown left for vacation, from which he did not know if he would return. As it turned out, he didn't.
"I was very uncomfortable at the end with where they wanted it to go," says Brown. "I didn't think the viewers were behind me when we did dumb television," he says, referring to the souped-up version of "NewsNight" that emerged with Cooper's arrival, with what SF Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman called "all kinds of cute and unnecessary elements" added to NewsNight, "significantly reducing the accuracy of the show's title." Ouch. Says Brown, who imagined the audience thinking "he's hating it": "They were right — I was hating it." (Goodman, however, wrote that Brown had behaved "about as professionally as anyone could expect.")
Brown's ouster left him suddenly, er, unanchored (sorry), without a show but still technically with a network, one that kept him from settling somewhere else — or talking to anyone else. All media requests had to go through CNN for approval, which was more often than not withheld (at least one request from a college journalist to interview Brown about his career was denied). "They didn't want to get popped — not that I was going to pop them," says Brown.* "I don't want people to think something that is not true, that I'm angry and upset or crazy." Even so, Brown was disappointed to be denied the chance to go on "Real Time with Bill Maher": "This one I thought would be different or challenging and cool — and they said no," said Brown. Still, he's philosophical about the process (no "popping" to speak of). "Bill Maher will ask again or he won't," says Brown. "I like being able to talk to you if I feel like talking to you — without some PR person saying you need to say this or you can't say that or lawyers getting involved. It got a little crazy for a while."
Now, looking ahead, Brown is available and presumably will be in demand: He's already had some feelers (he was approached by someone who produces pilots for public radio), has kept busy on the lecture circuit, and is discussing the possibility of reprising his professorial role at Arizona State. "What do I want to do?" says Brown, laughing. "Damn, that's a good question. They ask me that in my house all the time. " (Brown lives with his wife, Charlotte, a former reporter, his daughter, Gabby, who will be heading off to Emory College in the fall, and a new Golden retriever puppy named Maddie.) Brown says that his agent is encouraging him to talk to literary agents and publishers for a possible book, but "that takes a tremendous amount of discipline. I may have used all the discipline I have."
He's kidding, but not really: "I don't think I want to work 15 hours a day," he says, considering his former workload. "I don't want to be a big public person - I find celebrity terribly overrated for me." He is quick to qualify that, noting that he is still approached by viewers who want to speak to him about 9/11 and his coverage of that awful day. "Some people who watched my work really cared about it," he says. "On the other hand, most people don't watch and don't care and don't care about any of those people including me. And that's okay, too... I always hated news anchors who thought their job was extraordinarily important. It's not, actually — the people who are the subject of the stories are important."
(Brown, who came to CNN from ABC, where he was previously a correspondent, cites the ABC News documentary about Bob Woodruff's recovery — "ostensibly" — as the kind of work he respects. The documentary wasn't just about Woodruff, but an examination of the returning Iraq wounded and the care to which they returned. "They chose to do something important," says Brown. "Because besides Bob, as important as his recovery is, there are literally tens of thousands going through much worse — and without a seven-figure salary at the back end.")
Brown is also equally emphatic about something else he won't do: Opinion. "I think I'm kind of an old-time news guy," he says. "I didn't want to do opinion shows. One of the problems for me these days is we don't seem to be able to agree on the facts. Life is not talk radio — I just like the wall between A and B to be a little clearer, and I am uncomfortable when the wall doesn't seem to exist."
For his part, Brown says he's more interested in Iraq than Paris Hilton (yet another area in which he breaks with CNN!). "I'm a child of another war, Vietnam," says Brown — and that's where he sees a disconnect between himself and his students. "I tell them, 'It's sinful how little you know,'" says Brown. "'There's kids your age dying. Unlike when I was a kid, there's no draft and they don't have to pay attention."
He figures that, whatever he decides to do, the market will correct itself either way: "Television is a democracy," says Brown. "It's the most perfect democracy I've ever seen — y'all sit and vote with your remote controls and the network executives tally it up and give you more of what you voted for. If Darfur did a big number you'd have Darfur Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday — but you don't, you have "To Catch A Predator." By now, he's accepting of that democracy as it played out for him — and recognizes it rearing its ugly head for others at CNN. "They pulled Paula [Zahn]'s show page off the website ," he notes incredulously. "That is the way to send a message...I can't figure out what they're doing and, shockingly, they haven't conferred with me."
Others are clearly starting to, though, now that Brown is back on the scene. Now that he can speak freely again, it may only be a matter of time before someone hires him to do just that.
Aaron Brown Talks About... "CNN's Struggle" & The Competition From Fox [TVNewser]
Aaron Brown Talks About... The End Of His 'NewsNight' [TVNewser]