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Reginald Blisterkunst, Ph.D.
Among the Remembered Saints: My Life and Subsequent Death
Pluto Wars

Greg Chandler
"Bee's Tree"
"Local Folk"
"Roland's Feast"
"Pond Story "

Doug Childers
"The Baptism"

Gene Cox
The Sunset Lounge

Clarke Crutchfield
"The Break-In"
"The Canceled Party"
"The Imaginary Bullet"

Jason DeBoer
"The Execution of the Sun"

Deanna Francis Mason
"The Daguerreian Marvel"

Dennis Must

Charlie Onion
"Love Among the Jellyfish"
Pluto Wars
"Feast of the Manfestation"

Chris Orlet
"Romantic Comedy"

Daniel Rosenblum
"A Full Donkey"

Deanna Frances Mason
"The Daguerreian Marvel"

Andrew L. Wilson
"Fat Cake and Double Talk"


The Cox Watch
Charlie Onion

A few years ago, I decided there were two real things in Richmond, Virginia: local TV news anchor Gene Cox and the James River.

On the surface, of course, two things could not be more unalike.

Slow, brown and heavy, like an old dog in summer, the river is deceptive in its power and its allure. Only when you have stepped into it and waded far enough into its current to say honestly that it is the river and not you that is in control, only then does the river begin to speak and show its truths.

But Gene Cox seems entirely open for study. He is like the essence of modernist architecture, with its exposed steel girders that reject even the notion of the graceful, unseen stroke. Seen rightly, Cox is the Everyman, who shows all without realizing it or even caring when he does. Like the river, though, it is his facial expressions, his tone of voice, his slouching shoulders, that suggest obliquely what he thinks about the text he reads to us through our television sets.

The river may dominate the real-world side of Richmond, but Cox is the king of its unreal but equally ethereal side.


There is competition, of course, but really...do they even merit the master's smallest wry gesture of contempt?

Consider merely the range of their facial expressions. The demeanor of local Channel Six's Charles Fishburn changes only to smile country-boy-wide at happy pieces or to furrow his brow ever so slightly at the murder pieces. Channel Eight's Ric Young is even more limited; occasionally, he'll limp through a chuckle-segue to weather or sports, but otherwise, the guy's granite.

Cox, on the other hand, has the range and flexibility of a pre-pubescent gymnast: lifting his eyebrows askance, smirking with one corner of his mouth, scowling with a surprising number of worry-lines around his eyes and mouth. If Eskimos have twenty-four words for snow, Cox has at least a hundred facial expressions to show irony, sarcasm and discontent.


And here's the best part: it's all natural. Or at least he says it is.

Cox: "I have not artificially cultivated any personality. I am myself, which sometimes is good and sometimes is not."

Through the grimaces, the winces and the head shaking, Cox shows us our own faces as they would appear if we had to sit in front of a camera and really pay attention to what the news is telling us. We may not actually go through the expressions at home, but think about it: we really should.

Cox: "I find it difficult to read a story of tremendous import and feeling and not feel it myself. I know we're supposed to be objective, but I'm not a computer. I'm a human being. And when I read a story about some child being abused or a woman being raped and murdered or something, it's callous to be so totally objective that you don't feel it. I do feel it. And it comes through perhaps in the facial expressions more than anything else. I don't comment on it."


In this sense, Cox personifies something the other two bigwig local anchors don't: the full range of his audience's reaction.

The traditional definition of journalism requires an anchor to deliver the news in that clearly enunciated, falsely baritone voice that conveys both objectivity and concern. Tom Brokaw's voice comes to mind (does he use it at the breakfast table?). Fishburn's voice is a little too high to pull off, but Ric Young does it quite well.

But the traditional voice builds a wall between the anchor and the audience. And it's precisely this wall that Cox destroys when he droops his shoulders, scowls at the teleprompter and reads the text in his natural, sometimes mumbling voice. The newcomer may dislike Cox's delivery, but ask yourself this question: if you had to sit in front of a teleprompter and read the news, wouldn't you feel a little silly affecting the Brokaw voice? At least Cox can go to his high school reunion and not feel like a fake.


There's a distinct danger, at this point, of describing Cox as if he were no different from anchors of tabloid shows like First Edition and Extra. Like Cox, they readily offer us a broad range of facial expressions and head shaking. But the tabloids are canned. Cox is not.

Cox: "A lot of people think our segues are scripted or planned or something. I just don't think anchors can do that. I've seen some try. It falls flat. And when you just say whatever comes to mind, it's more honest. Sometimes, it gets you in trouble because the wrong thing will slip out."

Bill O'Reilly, still best known for his stint as the anchor for Inside Edition, comes much closer to Cox's delivery than any other tabloid anchor, but he's a little too clean in his delivery. (Slouching would help.) And, like his fellow tabloid anchors, too many of his editorial asides seem based on demographic studies.

Gene Cox is the real thing, the perfected projection of our own selves.

Gene Cox, c'est moi.


All right. So Cox is our own image, made better, possibly, but still ours. So what?

It's as simple as an equation, actually. If Cox is, in fact, a member of his own audience (in a way that other anchors are not), then the traditional assumptions about broadcasting are up in the air. The news desk becomes nothing more than a surface to set the printed news on; teleprompters are readily acknowledged; segues are cheerfully, even impishly played up.

In this way, Cox becomes the ultimate deconstructionist, dismantling the news for us one and a half hours each day, five days a week. No more college professors, no more big-worded intellectual journalists need apply: Richmond possesses the next Roland Barthes, the next Umberto Eco, but he's found a new format for his lectures.

Ultimately, Gene Cox becomes the harbinger of a surreal future of post-modern journalism, where everyone gets five hundred channels and you can broadcast your six-year-old son's school play to anyone who wants to tap in. No more slick, baritone voice, no more unseen teleprompters, no more feigned objectivity.

Cox, live on the air, squinting at a teleprompter: "It says here I should ad-lib to weather. Jim?"

Originally published December 1, 1993



About the Author

Charlie Onion is a frequent WAG contributor, and his novel, Pluto Wars (co-authored with the late Reginald Blisterkunst), is currently being serialized on the WAG Web site.


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