The Anchor Next Door
CNN news anchor Aaron Brown has a regular guy-next-door approach to reporting the news, an approach that served him well when he first went on the air on September 11. But that regular-guy stuff is no act
By Esther Davidowitz
Photography by John Fortunato
Aaron Brown has proven most everyone wrong.
At age 13, the small-town, headstrong youngster, living in Hopkins, MN, announced that he was going to be a network anchorman someday. Aaron Brown? A network anchor? He barely made it through high school. “I was a horrible student,” he admits. “I couldn’t get out of school fast enough.” He didn’t even graduate college. (“One day,” he vows, “I’ll go to college.”)
So, okay, no Phi Beta Kappa award. But, perhaps, a wonderfully smooth, wonderfully deep, wonderfully soothing voice. Nope, just a “nasal Midwestern twang,” as he himself notes. And, let’s be honest, no leading-man looks either. “If there was a movie about me, Cary Grant wouldn’t play me,” the bespectacled 56-year-old says. “Peter Falk would play me.” What’s more, Brown—yikes—smirks. “I can’t help it,” he says. “It’s just my smile. My smile looks like a smirk.”
But of course Aaron Brown, who now lives in southern Westchester, is a network anchor. He made his debut as a CNN anchorman on that most horrific of news days, September 11, 2001, one month before his show NewsNight was supposed to go on the air. And since then, anywhere from 750,000 to one million viewers have been tuning in to watch Brown anchor his hour-long cable news show which, he proudly notes, is unlike just about any other. (“I don’t want to do Laci Peterson. I want to do a serious news show.”)
The fact that he became a network anchor, indeed one of CNN’s lead anchors, may have surprised many. But not Aaron Brown. “I never believed people—and there were many—who said I couldn’t do it,” says Brown. “I never doubted my ability to communicate with the viewer.”
Aaron Brown loves to talk; he loves to tell stories. We are sitting in his moderate-sized office on the fourth floor of the new Time Warner building at Columbus Circle, and Brown, wearing a blue work shirt with sleeves rolled up, is talking. About himself: “I’m not comfortable with celebrity. I don’t need it. It’s not the oxygen that keeps me going.” About his work: “I’m lucky that I get to do what I love to do. May it last for awhile longer.” About his family: “I’m blessed and lucky to have a healthy, smart child.” And about his life in Westchester, a county he and his wife of 23 years, Charlotte Raynor, a journalist-turned-full-time mom, fell in love with after Brown’s previous post at ABC, as weekend anchor and correspondent for Nightline and other programs, brought the family East. The couple had spent years working in Seattle.
“We moved to the East Coast in 1991,” Brown begins, “and we didn’t have a clue as to where to live. I knew nothing, except that I didn’t want to live in the city. I wanted a backyard, a back door, and a community where the neighbors would know my kid.” Brown’s daughter, Gabby, is today 16.
They found that community in Westchester. “Even in these insane times, we found a place that’s very ’50s.” It was Charlotte, who Brown boasts is “smarter and more centered than I, and really pretty” (“He’s been trained well,” she quips), who found their 3,500-square-foot house. “The minute I walked into the house, I knew this was it,” he says. “This is an adult house, and it has a great kitchen”—something that apparently is quite important to Brown, the family cook. “I love to cook. I like the chopping, the slicing, the adventure of finding out if it’s going to work.”
He also loves to play golf. “I like everything about the game. I enjoy being out there with my friends, and I enjoy being out there alone. I’m a range rat.” He took up the sport “seriously” six years ago, after giving up tennis (“Golf is an old person’s game,” he explains, “and I’m aware of my age”). Brown can often be found on a course near his home on weekends playing, typically, 36 holes of golf. “Aaron is obsessed with golf,” says his golf buddy and close friend Robert Gordon of Scarsdale. Gordon reports that his friend’s obsession has paid off; Brown plays the sport rather well. His handicap? An enviable seven. “He’s fairly competitive. He wants to win.”
Brown doesn’t dispute the allegation that he likes winning. But he says winning—on the course or on the air—is not what really matters. “As Kipling says, â€˜Success and failure are great imposters.’ All that matters is the effort. It’s all about trying. You have to take risks. I’ve never been afraid to do that.”
He began taking risks early on. At age 10, the “rebellious” middle child of one of the few Jewish families in Hopkins (“Less than one percent of the kids in our town was Jewish,” says his brother Tom, a lawyer in Portland, OR. “We had a sense of being outsiders”), started his own newspaper. He led, not terribly diplomatically, with a story about his best friend’s parents’ impending divorce. “Not my brightest moment,” he says. Brown got interested in journalism the day his father, then in the junk business, took him to the local paper’s newsroom to visit a friend. “I was enthralled,” he recalls. “I thought it was the most exciting place in the world.” He knew then that reporting on the world is what he wanted to do. “I wanted a box seat,” he says. “I wanted to see the world.”
Indeed, he says, he finds the world endlessly fascinating. “I never understood people who don’t read the paper. It’s the biggest bargain in the world. It’s the world for a half a buck.” Or less if you watch Brown on NewsNight: at the end of each show, Brown takes viewers through a selection of headlines from the next day’s papers—always including the weather in the Chicago Sun-Times.
During the turbulent Civil Rights Movement, young Aaron announced to his parents that he wanted to go to Mississippi and register voters. He was 13. “My mother, as she often did with me, just shook her head.” She shook her head mightily when Aaron, who no one disputes is bright, brought home C and D grades, while his three brothers and one sister brought home A’s. “He marched to his own drum,” says his sister, Jane Brown, a teacher in Kansas City. And what drum is that? “Aaron would walk around the house and use a soda pop can as a microphone,” she says. “He always knew what he was going to do in life.”
Despite bad grades, it didn’t take Brown long to get behind a real microphone. At age 18, Brown was hired by a local radio station to do a talk show. “It’s a perfect age to do a talk show,” he says. “You don’t know what you don’t know.” After a year and a half on the radio, he served in the Coast Guard for a year and afterwards worked as a reporter at a radio station in Connellsville, PA. He worked there until he could save enough money to buy a car and drive to California to try his luck. “I was fearless,” he says. “I would just try stuff. At 21, I was doing talk shows in Los Angeles.” On the radio. But he wanted to be on television, so he moved to Seattle where he joined a public television station and where he met Charlotte, who was then a student. “I just looked at her and said, “Whoa!’” Charlotte was smitten too. “I found him compelling,” she says. “He had very long hair and wore a flannel shirt and corduroy pants,” she remembers fondly.
They married in 1982, and after almost a decade of anchoring a TV news program in Seattle, Brown got called by ABC to join its overnight news show. “It was an unbelievable opportunity,” he says. “I could play with the big boys and girls.” Charlotte, too, was thrilled. “It was exhilarating coming to New York,” she says, where she went from being a reporter to being a stay-at-home mom. “I love it. I don’t have a boss.”
Ten years after joining ABC, in July 2001, he left the station to join CNN and start a prime-time news show. It was supposed to premiere in mid-October.
On September 11, 2001, as he was driving to work, Brown’s cellphone rang. His producer was on the line. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. In less than an hour, millions of viewers watched Brown, standing on top of the CNN building, report the “biggest story of my life.”
“I prepared my whole life to do that work,” Brown says. “It was so crazy, so horrible, that I knew I had to stay calm. The crazier things get, the calmer I get.” Much to the chagrin—at first—to some at CNN. “My bosses wanted me to be a little less calm,” he confides. But in fact Brown’s serene, thoughtful, and reflective way of reporting the news (“Mine is not the voice of God,” he says), many now agree, was just right for the confusing, frightening, and crazy days, weeks, and months after the terrorist attack.
“His arrival at CNN signaled a kind of change for the network,” says Michael Burgi, editor of Mediaweek, a weekly trade magazine that reports on the television, radio, and print industries. “He brought more personality to the network. He remains the poster boy of a new and different CNN. He’s the softer side of CNN.”
Brown has a more-folksy, more regular-guy-next-door-let’s-have-a-chat approach to the news—an approach that, Burgi says, “as a viewer, I enjoyed at first but I admit I started to tire of.” Indeed, there are indications that NewsNight is not doing as well as it had in its first year or so, when it came close to beating its biggest rival, Fox News, in the ratings wars. Nearly two million people watch Fox between 7 and 11 pm nowadays, while an average of 775,000 tune into CNN.
Brown knows that he’s not “everyone’s cup of tea. I’m an acquired taste. It’s okay if people don’t like the show. I care about the people who do.”
He has his fans. And while he’s grateful for them, he is uncomfortable with the notion of being in any way a “celebrity,” even if it’s not on the level of, say, Peter Jennings or Bill O’Reilly. “Living in the public eye is a lot harder than it appears.” Harder still, one would assume, when you’re shy.
“Aaron is probably the shyest person I know,” says his friend Robert Gordon. “He is extremely funny, extremely bright, but he is not a small-talk guy. If he goes to a party, he’ll stand in the corner, looking awkward and self-conscious.” Which is why Brown doesn’t go to many parties or, for that matter, out much. “My idea of a nice night is to have two other couples over,” he says. And to cook, of course. But nothing orange. “I don’t like orange food—no squash, no yams, no sweet potatoes,” he says. “And I’m glad I’m old enough that nobody is going to make me eat yams or sweet potatoes. I don’t have to.”
And, though he may prefer to stay at home, Brown enjoys public speaking, especially when young people are in the audience. He loves to tell them about his career and, most important, about making dreams come true. “I don’t laugh at people’s dreams. Dreaming is a good thing. I believe in dreamers. If you don’t think it’s possible, look at my life. I made my dream happen.”