A few weeks ago, Brian Williams made a brief appearance on NBC’s Football Night in America broadcast to promote his new show, Rock Center. He and Bob Costas went back and forth about the new show, and their playful banter made me wonder if, in a slightly different world, their roles could have been reversed. I mean, this wasn’t Walter Cronkite sitting opposite Chris Berman. Both men are talented, likable, and respected, and it’s not impossible to imagine Williams in the sports field, covering Super Bowls and Olympics, and Costas anchoring the evening news. In fact, Costas is the rare television journalist who remains in sports only because he’s chosen to. The man had a great late-night talk show, Later, for seven years in the late 1980s and 1990s, and his HBO show, though sports-focused, was as thorough and provocative as any other news magazine in television.
So I was not surprised to see Costas on Rock Center last night, interviewing Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach who is at the center of the sex abuse scandal. Yes, this is a sports-related story, and likely, Costas’ connections and reputation helped land the exclusive interview for NBC. But clearly, this is a huge, national story that promises to stain the front pages and the evening news for months to come. NBC was not about to give it to Costas simply because he knows what an equipment room smells like.
With Sandusky on the phone and his lawyer in the studio, Costas was pointed with his questions, but also fair to a man whose presumed guilt has turned him into a “monster” who preyed on young boys. He let Sandusky answer questions in his own way, and asked the most crucial questions in multiple ways to reinforce the damning accusations of the case. He never sensationalized. He never attacked or dismissed Sandusky. He stuck to the facts, and let Sandusky’s words – and silences – do his work for him. It was the master performance of an experienced interviewer, who only had to say, “It seems that if all of these accusations are false, you are the unluckiest and most persecuted man that any of us have ever heard about?” to civilly express the doubts most of his audience certainly shared about the former coach.
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Last week, Costas and NBC announced plans for Costas Tonight, a monthly “Larry King-Piers Morgan” type interview show that will air on the network’s new sports channel – currently called Versus – this spring. It sounds great, but… monthly? On cable? I couldn’t help but think Costas had earned and is capable of so much more. Costas, now 59, though, seems satisfied with being the Dick Schaap of his era, the upright voice of reason and master raconteur who lives at the nexis of sports, pop-culture, and national news. But he takes a back seat to no one in journalism, and the next time one of the networks is looking for an evening-news anchor, they could do worse than start by calling Bob Costas. He’ll probably say no, but they’re bound to at least hear him tell one great story before he hangs up.
What did you think of Costas’ performance last night? Do you think staying in sports for so long has stymied his career in any way? Would you watch the evening news if he was the anchor?