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The Importance of Being Earnest

WNYW New York anchor Ernie Anastos received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at the New York Emmys April 3. He spoke with Michael Malone, B&C deputy editor, about what he’s learned across more than three decades in local TV, what he picked up while working alongside Walter Cronkite and how he’s addressing all the doom and gloom in the media.

What gets you excited now?

I want to be a champion of bringing more positive news, more uplifting stories to our broadcast and to all media. We can’t change the news. There are events that take place, natural tragedies that we have no control over. What I want to do is create more of a balance. I always run into people who say, “Ernie, why don’t we have more good news on the air? I love watching you but sometimes, especially at night, it frightens me. Can’t you just put more positive stuff on air?”

I’m doing it. I have something on my site [] called “Positively Ernie.” I’m finding the kind of things that make people feel good. Positively Ernie will also be a half-hour special on [WNYW] in May. Guests will come on before a live audience and talk about good things that happen in the world of medicine, education, social change. Things people can listen to and [that] help change lives.

Do you feel there’s too much negativity in local news?

Everyone is just stressed out. You turn on the television, there’s a recall, there’s radioactivity in the air. There’s terrorism, war, Internet bullying. I’m looking to cover the stories but put things in there that people can look at and say, “That’s a good thing, there’s some hope there, this is something I can apply to my life.” We need that for ourselves, for our family, for our children.

I go to schools and joke with kids, say, “Who’s going to be on my newscast?” The answer is, oftentimes, you gotta do something bad to get on the news. Kids tell me you have to kill somebody to get on TV. We put bad behavior on the air. These people end up writing books, they get reality shows, and they’re celebrities. We need to reward good behavior, too. Reward the people who are working hard, doing good things for the community.

Those good stories don’t get the ratings. It’s Charlie Sheen’s antics that people want to see.

What I’m saying is, let’s cover the news, but let’s make sure we get stories in there that people are looking for, now more than ever. People are looking for uplifting stories. There’s a need for it. I think this is the time.

You’ve mentioned being mentored by Walter Cronkite. How did you meet him?

I was working at CBS when I was a student, around 1967-68, and met Walter then. I would bring copy into the CBS newsroom for Walter Cronkite. I’ll never forget that. He had such great wisdom. I’d say, “Walter, how do we decide what is the lead story?” He’d say, “Ernie, ask yourself, how many people will this story affect? You work your way down from there.” I always remembered that. It’s a good rule of thumb.

Walter talked about how important it is to maintain credibility. I remember reading the CBS manual—you had to be very careful about your facial expressions, body language, tone of voice. The networks had very different standards in those days. We have more of a conversational style now.

Is there a place in local news for point of view?

As long as people know it’s someone giving an opinion along with some factual information, I have no problem with it. Why not? If stations want to do it, I say, try the format, see if it works. Just as long as the information is clear to the viewer. Is there still a significant role in the media landscape for local anchors? Honestly, now more than ever. There was something I saw at [the New York] Botanical Gardens that said the only sign of life is growth. This is a growing process for all of us. Whether it’s Facebook, the Internet, you name it, it’s a very exciting time to be in the communications business. There are more outlets, more opportunities, more voices, more ways of being creative and bringing out the kind of information that needs to be brought out. In 1978, we’d sit in the newsroom and say, “It’s kind of quiet lately, we haven’t had a big story.” I walk into the newsroom now, and there’s always a big story. The coverage is everywhere.