the Remembered Saints: My Life and Subsequent Death
Execution of the Sun"
Among the Jellyfish"
of the Manfestation"
Cake and Double Talk"
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.
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.
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."
this sense, Cox personifies something the other two bigwig
local anchors don't: the full range of his audience's
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
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.
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
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
Gene Cox is the real thing, the perfected
projection of our own selves.
Gene Cox, c'est moi.
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
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
Cox, live on the air, squinting at a
teleprompter: "It says here I should ad-lib to weather.
published December 1, 1993
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.