Friday, November 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden

CNN dumps smart for soulful

Seattle Times TV critic

In the end-of-season style associated with failed baseball teams, CNN announced Wednesday that Anderson Cooper was in and Aaron Brown was out.

Well, sort of. The CNN press release noted that Cooper would "take the helm of a live news program" from 10 to midnight, preceded by "The Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer at 7, "Paula Zahn Now" at 8 and "Larry King Live" at 9 (all times Eastern).

Brown wasn't mentioned anywhere — not even a "Thanks, and we wish him well in his future ventures." It's as if the man whose 9/11 coverage reverberated with viewers, and who brought a rare reflectiveness to cable's choppy hubbub, had never existed.

All of which suggests that CNN is not even as classy as Triple A Portland, though its ratings make that an otherwise apt comparison. CNN has continued to struggle against first-place Fox News Channel in the second division of television news.

To be fair, the lag includes Brown's show, which this year fell further behind time-slot opponent Greta Van Susteren on Fox.

Yet Brown's failure to "pop" doesn't quite support CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein's explanation — once reporters called him — that he and Brown "mutually" agreed there just wasn't a place on the new schedule.

The truth is, Brown's job was shaky once Klein became CNN's latest management solution. When Klein unveiled new plans for CNN to television critics last January, it was clear the charismatic Cooper and Blitzer's "Situation Room" would lead the way.

Even at that, however, Brown, 56, who spent 15 years at KING-TV and KIRO-TV before joining ABC News and then CNN, didn't exactly help his own cause.

He worked hard on "the smirk" — the tiny smile that tended to polarize viewers into fans or enemies. But he appeared reluctant to travel out of the studio, preferring the old-school anchor's occupation of directing and helping explain the news that others filed.

And he did this quite splendidly, with the kind of suave aplomb and contextual analysis that bore a resemblance to the late Peter Jennings.

Jennings, of course, had the job that Brown once hoped to get. Brown spent 10 years at ABC News, anchoring "World News Tonight Saturday" and launching "World News Now." He was a correspondent and an occasional essayist who offered fine insights.

But Jennings showed no signs of retiring, and Brown took CNN's offer. His coverage of 9/11, which took place right in his New York backyard, seemed to justify the hiring.

In the long run, though, it probably was a mistake. After trying to copy network news, cable has concluded that its 24/7 nature requires "personalities" plus bells and whistles.

That doesn't exclude intelligence and news savvy, but it does throw emphasis on the ability to emote and relate to viewers. Cooper's passionate, involved coverage of Hurricane Katrina assured his ascendancy, just as freshly appointed NBC anchor Brian Williams forever banished doubts that he was a suit with a sun lamp.

CNN's decision to promote Cooper in Brown's old slot also is a classic newsroom move. The industry is notorious for rewarding someone who's triumphed in a specialized area of reporting with a bigger and almost inevitably ill-fitting job. Dan Rather, a superb correspondent who never quite suited the CBS desk, is the paradigmatic example.

I love Cooper as impassioned reporter. Yet his weakness is providing analysis and perspective — precisely the skills most needed by an anchor. Maybe CNN and other cable-news channels should just ditch the anchor designation in favor of "news host."

CNN's inability to find a place for Aaron Brown is troubling. His gravitas — there, I've said it — was a reassuring element in a landscape occupied by the plasticine Paula Zahn and Blitzer, a still water that hasn't run deep for years.

Brown is on vacation this week and couldn't be reached for comment about his plans. But I like to think he'll return to a network. Perhaps newly appointed CBS News chief Sean McManus can find in Brown the opportunity to wed tradition with reinvention.

No boom to "Boondocks"

A TV version of "The Boondocks" arrives at a good time — that is, for the show. Hurricane Katrina and a new NBA dress code have put race back in the news alongside Supreme Court nominees and alternating fits of White House leakage and stoppage.

Aaron McGruder, 31, created "The Boondocks" comic strip six years ago, and his political and social humor have stirred reaction from the get-go. Newspapers on occasion have yanked the strip à la "Doonesbury."

But that says more about the timidity of papers and the imagined sensibility of readers than about the brazenness of "Boondocks." Comedy Central's "South Park" would make 10 times the trouble as a Sunday funny, which is why it isn't.

The shock chasm between print and cable TV may explain the lackluster debut of "The Boondocks" at 11 p.m. Sunday on Cartoon Network. Far from being provocative, it has the rote, wind-up feel of naughty children being asked to perform.

The children are Huey and Riley Freeman, precocious young African-American brothers whose verbal face-offs with their grandfather frame McGruder's editorial opinions. "Granddad" Freeman has relocated his wards from the South Side of Chicago to the safe, white suburbs, and they're not grateful.

Sunday's premiere tries to stir the pot right away.

"Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil and the government was lying about 9/11," announces 10-year-old Huey (Regina King) to an imaginary gathering of white neighbors. Hearing these words, they begin screaming and bursting into flames.

This proves to be a prophetic example of the show's content and style — more polemic crowd-pleaser than comic howl-fest. The viewers most likely to watch "The Boondocks" are least likely to be upset by Huey's statement; if anything, they'll applaud.

And that's what happens in a later scene when Huey tries his speech for real. "He's adorable!" sighs the Caucasian crowd. Although the explanation is they're rich and just don't care, the joke would have been better if it had come at the expense of, say, earnest white liberals who love "The Boondocks."

Granted, the libertarian "South Park" and left-leaning "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" also depend on like-minded fans. But these programs have elements surprisingly absent from "The Boondocks": timely material with clever twists. The cartoon also lacks the little organic touches that build character, fill out a plot and persuade us the Freemans are a real family.

It will be interesting if "The Boondocks" causes controversy. Much has been made of Sunday's episode, which beats us over the head roughly 20 times with a once-verboten word. (White character: "I think it's OK if they say it.")

But the same word has already made its way, unremarked, to the family hour of network television in "Everybody Hates Chris." For all McGruder's reputed edginess, "The Boondocks" may cause hand-wringing only on the op-ed pages.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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