Q&A with Aaron Brown: Delivering News as Nightly Conversation

CNN anchor and Hopkins, Minn., native reflects on the state of cable news, how he deals with critics and the secrets to Jeopardy success.

Your first day on the job as a CNN anchor was Sept. 11, 2001. How did the events of that day change how you cover the news?I don’t think I changed anything because of Sept. 11. What I did that day – calmly, I hope – is explain what we know and what we don’t. It is what I have been doing for 25 years. Being human, even on the air, is part of that.

Your work that day was widely praised. Have you ever gone back to watch a tape of the 15 hours you were on the air?No. I’ve never gone back to look at any of the tape for a couple of reasons. First, I would notice all the things I don’t like. I tend to do that. You can’t do that much live television under those circumstances and not, at times, say things less well than you wished. So that’s part of it. The other part is more basic. I lived it. I don’t want to live it again. Perhaps someday I will look back at the tape.

As anchor of NewsNight With Aaron Brown, your delivery has been described as “folksy” and “conversational.” But even you admit that viewers are either drawn in or repelled by your approach. How would you describe your “on-air” style?I think my “on-air” style is less formal than most. It’s more conversational and less “Big Daddy”  anchor. I think of it as a nightly conversation in people’s living rooms. It’s a perfect conversation for an anchor … I do all the talking.

As perhaps the most visible representative of CNN, how do you respond to criticism that your show is either too liberal or too conservative?I pay a lot of attention to what we do and how we do it. I pay little attention to critics because nothing  we do will ever please them all. We just go about our business trying to do it well. That’s hard enough. Looking over our shoulders at critics or others makes it impossible.

I’ve noticed that on occasion you respond directly to online posts that critique your performance. Are people surprised to hear from you?Yes, I think people are surprised to hear from me directly. When they do, they often temper their rage a bit. I do it because I like to and because I think when people write you should try, when possible, to write back. But in truth, these days I have less and less time for that. I wish it were otherwise.

Cable news often is blamed for overplaying coverage of high-profile and celebrity crimes. You make it clear to your viewers that there are more important events to report on, yet you often spend time covering tabloid stories like the Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant cases. Is it still possible to distinguish between news and entertainment?First, I don’t think that Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant are the same. The Bryant case presents a number of interesting and important issues, and we have spent time looking at those.

Does it surprise you then – given world events since 9/11 – that viewers are still drawn to these stories?People have always been fascinated by tabloid stuff and there is nothing wrong with that. It becomes wrong if that is all we offer. CNN doesn’t. We do more. NewsNight does more. But we are not in the business of “eat your vegetables” news either – giving people only what is good for them and not what they want. It is a balance. But overall, cable does too much tabloid reporting.

You began your broadcast career as a radio talk-show host in Minneapolis. What was your show like?I’m sure at the time I thought the radio show was a lot better than it was. I was 18. At 18 you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m a bit smarter now. I know there is a lot I don’t know.

Do you recall any memorable moments from that first radio job?My grandmother liked it, but honestly she spoke only limited English.

On May 12, 2004, you appeared on Jeopardy. It was “Power Players Week,” so you played against former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and NBC correspondent Ashleigh Banfield. What qualities must a “Power Player” possess?A quick, but not too quick, thumb.

What is your secret to a successful round of golf?Any round of golf played is a success.

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