Aaron Brown is far from New York City, thousands of miles away from the anchor desk he once manned at CNN. Cocooned inside a Tempe classroom, Brown waxes on about the media coverage of President Bush’s State of the Union address from the night before. His audience is no longer on the other side of a TV camera.
Instead, on this Wednesday afternoon, his thoughts fall on the ears of 25 Arizona State University journalism students taking this semester’s “Turning Points in Television News History” seminar, which Brown teaches with professor Bill Silcock.
“Try to ignore them,” Brown instructs his students, trying to make light of the photographer and reporter in the room on only his third day of class. Standing in the middle of the classroom, he explains to the students that the visitors are part of the trappings that come with being a household name.
Being the center of attention is nothing new to Brown, who has broadcast news to viewers for more than three decades. But being a journalism professor and the 2007 John J. Rhodes Chair in Public Policy and Institutions at Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, is something he’s tackling for the first time. He says he’s looking forward to exploring the role.
“What I want to do now is be a good professor for a semester and see how that feels. ... Right now the challenge is to do that well,” says Brown, who plans to guide his students through how television news has influenced events and vice versa, peppering the lectures with tales of his own travails.
Admitting he’s not one for bureaucracy and formality in the classroom, Brown says he does have one rule the students should follow if they are going to fit in: “They need to see me as me. If they see me as a celebrity, they won’t do what they need to do, which is to engage me and their classmates.”
If the students are the least bit star-struck, it doesn’t show. Brown’s intermittent interrogation of their daily media habits at the start of class makes them think on their feet. Aided by placards with each student’s name, Brown questions them with the same zeal he used to question world leaders and political figures. But in the classroom he makes sure to inject some humor, eliciting laughs when he jokingly chastises a student for having the audacity to use “air” quotes.
The erudite Brown can be serious at times, but doesn’t appear to take himself seriously. His students say the longtime anchorman is approachable.
“He’s not your typical professor. He’s more relaxed,” says junior Matt Storey, 21, who, like most students in the class, signed up to hear about Brown’s experiences in the industry.
“He reminds me of ... the way my dad (a high school teacher) deals with young people,” says 19-year-old sophomore Emma Breysse.
A CAREER IN TRANSITION
“I want you to find (journalism) cool and exciting. Take it in like a big painting,” Brown challenges his students.
Brown says he found his inspiration to become a journalist at age 13 after watching Walter Cronkite deliver the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
“I said to my mom, ‘That’s the job I want.’ ”
Forgoing college — he briefly attended the University of Minnesota, but dropped out to work at a local radio station — Brown packed his belongings and drove to Seattle, setting his sights on TV.
“I called KING-TV every week for four years,” Brown remembers. His big break came in the summer of 1976, when the Seattle station hired him for a nighttime “grunt work” newsroom position.
“I always believed that if I could get in the door, I would be fine. It never occurred to me (the dream) would never work out,” says Brown, who went on to become a reporter and anchorman at KING-TV for a decade before moving to the area’s CBS affiliate.
By 1992, Brown (now married and a father) was hired by ABC, becoming the founding anchorman for “World News Tonight Saturday” and eventually a reporter for “World News Tonight With Peter Jennings” (whom he describes as a great mentor) and “Nightline.” Brown traveled around the world reporting on events as varied as the war in Bosnia and the O.J. Simpson trial.
In 2001, CNN offered him his own news program: “News-Night With Aaron Brown.” His broadcasts of 9/11 became a defining moment in his career, earning him an Edward R. Murrow award.
In November 2005, Brown’s career took a different turn when CNN discontinued “NewsNight.” “I thought it was time to write another chapter,” says Brown, who’s still under contract with CNN until this summer.
That new chapter began on the links early last year in Scottsdale, when a former local newspaper publisher posed to him the idea of teaching. Soon ASU came courting. Even Walter Cronkite gave him a call.
“Cronkite said, ‘I want you to do this. You should do this.’ No one in their right mind would say no to him,” says Brown, who with his wife, Charlotte, is having a home built in north Scottsdale.
Now Brown is in a position to inspire students firsthand, perhaps in the way Jennings inspired him.
“The one thing I know I can give them is a sense of what they want to do is possible,” says Brown. “I try to remind them not only can it happen, I am living proof that it does happen.”
Aaron Brown will present a free lecture, “Journalism in Our Times,” 7:30 p.m. March 8 at Gammage Auditorium, 1200 S. Forest Ave., Tempe. Tickets are required and will be available in early February at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, ASU bookstores and Borders. (480) 965-0161.