In Depth: The Voice of God – Why it Still Serves a Purpose

I noted last weekend in the comments on one thread I noted that I’d been mulling doing a post about the “voice of God” factor and, after some encouragement to do so, here it comes.

I’m old school. I’m a big believer and supporter of the Voice of God factor in TV news. For the uninitiated, the term “voice of God” is a somewhat ethereal term that has subjective aspects to it. Loosely defined it’s widely held to refer to news anchors who the viewer trusts with near implicity in times of big news cycles as if they’re getting the news straight from God.

For me personally, the definition is far more specific. It refers to news anchors who enunciate their words and carry themselves on the air in such a manner as to project a mastery or command of the story with such authority that it resonates through the TV screen directly to you (in a symbolic sense of course) and you come away from the TV thinking to yourself, “Damn. They’re good.”

In truth, no anchor truly has a complete mastery or command of the story in all details. But then that’s the whole point. That voice of God lulls you into thinking they do, or at the very least convinces you they have more than a superficial knowledge of the subject at hand. And those with that talent are self-aware of their limitations. They won’t put themselves in a position where they’re caught flat footed or out of their depth. If they don’t know something, they’ll admit as much up front, rather than allow the viewer to discover that on their own, thus destroying the connection between viewer and anchor. Better to admit your shortcomings and maintain the relationship as an honest broker than try to skate by and hope the viewer doesn’t catch on that you really don’t know much about what you’re talking about.

But the voice of God for me is more than just projecting authority of subject matter. It’s also about storytelling. Many anchors can report a news item on the air as reflected by the copy. Far less can tell a story in a manner suitable for that story using the chraracteristics of the voice of God; pitch perfect word accentuation, pregnant pauses at the right spots, customized tone/emotion for each sentence, a vocal delivery one could associate with the news radio format where voice is everything, little yet significant gestures or motions (Walter Cronkite removing his glasses as he announced the death of Kennedy), or even having it in them the instinct to make a necessary emotional outburst that resonates with the viewer (the late Frank Reynolds turning to his ABC staff and pounding the desk with his fist while complaining “C’mon, let’s get it nailed down!” when rumors swirled that Reagan had died from his wounds after being shot). Your basic anchor may have command of one, two, or there of these traits but voice of God anchors have them all nailed cold.

Given the above, one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the voice of God is a journalistic parlor trick meant to fool the viewer but it’s really not. It’s all about establishing a special connection with the viewer, that trust thing, which is key to any successful relationship between anchor and viewer. But what separates the run of the mill anchor from the voice of God anchor is they know instinctively when to hit these marks, especially during breaking news stories when everything is in a state of flux and they still look smooth navigating through it all. Voice of God anchors don’t talk at you, they talk to you. They guide you through a story, holding your hand. You have entrusted them with the news and they in turn make you feel like it is their personal responsibility that you get that news. They take on a role of news viewer advocate. If an interviewee is getting technical in an explanation and talking over your head, they won’t hesitate to interrupt and ask that the interviewee explain to the viewer what he’s talking about. It germinates out of a dedication to a dead serious approach to news. It’s not something that can be easily taught and harder still to master. From my experience the number of people out there who have mastered the voice of God on the national network level is a small one.

In days gone by the voice of God club consisted of a very small membership. You had Huntley/Brinkley, Cronkite, and Reasoner. Later as the old guard passed into retirement or moved on, the next generation of Brokaw, Reynolds, Rather, Jennings, MacNeil/Lehrer, Bernard Shaw, and I’ll toss in John Chancelor as well.

The point when that second generation moved out of the anchor chair is when people started trying to shovel dirt on the voice’s grave, proclaiming that the era of the voice of God was over, that it was an antiquated concept, and viewers wanted something different now. But from my perspective that prognostication amounted to little more than self-serving bluster. The networks continue to keep voice of God anchors on their roster. I could name names, was going to name names, but decided against it. It’s not really ICN territory to pit anchors against one another and putting out a list is bound to do just that because I’m creating tiers and essentially ranking talent. There are plenty of other sites out there better suited for that purpose. So I choose to keep my list to myself…unless one of them gets removed from the chair and then I protest by saying how good they were.

Because when there’s a serious big news event breaking, the viewers instinctively start searching for that voice of God. They’re not interested in whimsy or twaddle. They’re not interested in hyperbole. They’re not interested in rambling in lieu of something concise to say. They want the facts and they want to feel secure that they’re getting their news from someone who appears to be on top of things. They crave that reassurance. Networks know this. You’ll see them juggle lineups on the fly to put their Voice people on in a crisis. And that’s why, despite the claims that the era of the Voice of God is dead, it’s still very much alive and well and serving a purpose.

21 Responses to “In Depth: The Voice of God – Why it Still Serves a Purpose”

  1. I think Judy Woodruff might have fallen into that category. ‘Voice of God’-people don’t act silly on the air, or make jokes about inappropriate subjects. If you see an outtake where they say a bad word or act dopey, it’s shocking. Bernard Shaw comes to mind, for some reason. There’s a wall, where they’re talking to you, not with you.
    I think Frank Reynolds was reacting to reports that James Brady had died. He was p/ssed.

  2. The last one that had that “got to turn to that one when the world blows up” for me was Peter Jennings. He had that arrogance that made you believe he was in control, knew more than you did, and was going to parcel it out to you in a way he thought you could absorb. Brian Williams trys to do it, but his sense of humor on talk shows, and his blog, have eliminated “the wall” needed to pull it off.

  3. There’s a wall, where they’re talking to you

    YES! YES! I have felt that same way very much and it was a huge oversight on my part to not include that in my dissertation. I’ll fix that right now.

  4. A ‘voice of God’ isn’t a ‘regular’ guy, like Shep (or Brian Williams). Shep is good, but he’s too familiar. You always wait for the joke or the certain look when something off-the-wall happens. He’s the guy-next-door, the guy who tells dirty jokes. The VOG makes nothing more than a wry observation, with a barely-perceptible smile to punctuate.

  5. You can’t have a Voice Of God on cable. They’re on too much, so you get that ‘familiarity’, no matter how serious they are. No ‘Voices’ from morning shows, either. I’m looking at you, Gibson, Couric and Sawyer. Forget about it, Stephanopolous. No ‘Voice’ after you’ve done a cooking segment, or interviewed Robin Williams.

    Double strikes if you’re on cable and try to sound Godlike. Wolf Blitzer.

  6. Oops, I forgot about Tom Brokaw’s tenure on The Today Show. Hmm, can’t say he fits my criteria. He seemed pretty Voice-y to me. Maybe because Today was ‘newsier’ then, or maybe he lasted so long on Nightly News, we forgot he ever did Today. Like me. Just now..

  7. I think the days of a “voice of God” news anchor are long gone, and good riddance. Once upon a time we believed that the perspective of those in authority speaking to us was infallible, and in our laziness we enjoyed the fantasy and accepted being deceived. The VOG effect was not just with news anchors, but also with our priests, pastors, and rabbis, our teachers and professors, and (dear to my heart) our physicians.

    So many who grew up during the Great Depression quit school in the 8th or 9th grade to help support their families. So there was some logic in thinking that those better educated minds behind the voices knew more than most. Not surprisingly, the VOG aura of professionals started to wane as the Great Depression generation began to thin.

  8. Familiarity is not a qualifying factor in Voice of God status. It’s about what they say and how they say it, not how often they’re on the air.

  9. joeremi Says:

    I should clarify my “familiarity” statement. It’s the casual relationship with the viewer, bred by extended time on the air, that creates the familiarity that removes Voice Of God status. You’re right – and Laura’s example of Bernard Shaw proves – that “what they say and how they say it” is the over-riding factor. Bernie had the extended exposure, but never breached “the wall”.

  10. missy5537 Says:

    I agree with Al. Years ago, people MAY have had such credibility, but no longer, especially since we’ve seen so much one-sided news on the major networks.

    And NO ONE should be the “Voice of God”, whether in news, church, whatever. Know the real Word of God and you will know what is truth.

  11. joeremi Says:

    Come on, Missy. “Voice of God” is a well-known phrase in TV news. It denotes “presence of authority”. Nobody means it in a literal religious sense.

  12. laura l Says:

    I tried to find a Bernie-blooper. This was more of a Dukakis-blooper.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DF9gSyku-fc

    This one’s a compilation, with only a brief bit of Bernie. Lots of related clips-though. How do those people function with all that yapping in their ear?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8AMLYPtkCE&feature=PlayList&p=6ADD7CD0BF264EA1&playnext_from=PL&playnext=1&index=24

  13. I remember Frank Reynolds’ angry outburst as he reported an ABC correspondent had been murdered in cold blood by the army in a Central American banana republic. It was captured on camera.

    The author of this article is absolutely right in his definition of the Voice of God in TV news. They were people whose credibility was rock solid. Viewers knew they could trust those people to tell them the truth about any story or situation. If the facts were slow in coming, we trusted them to keep digging for the facts and share them as they came.

    There was a pantheon of those people at one time, but unfortunately, I don’t believe people of that caliber exist anymore. I can’t think of a single TV news anchor at the national level who meets the qualification. Not one.

    There’s any number of pretenders and wannabes, but the Voice of God has left the building.

  14. meggielou Says:

    Ok – I’m really not trying to be silly here, but when I think “voice of God”, I think James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, or that guy who was the first President on “24” and now does the AllState commercials. If any of them were in the journalism profession, I think I’d listen… they have “the voice” (no doubt) and the body language and intonation/delivery as well.
    Yeah, I know – none of them are journalists… I’m just sayin…

  15. joeremi Says:

    …Central American banana republic.

    I remember this event vividly. The ensuing history is fascinating.

    http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/May-June-08/On-this-Day–Nicaraguan-Soldiers-Kill-ABC-Reporter.html

    Warning: I purposely avoided linking the actual video. I don’t recommend it.

  16. ….when I think “voice of God”, I think James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, or that guy who was the first President on “24″….

    Describing someone as “the Voice of God” has little or nothing to do with a commanding presence speaking from the throne.

    To be a VOG just means the person has an authoritative yet personal way of presenting the news that instills complete trust and confidence in his or her credibility. You have no trouble believing this individual is telling you the absolute truth, and a news broadcaster with that quality can move mountains, or topple a Presidency.

    Example: In late 1967, Walter Cronkite spent time in Vietnam filing reports on the progress of the war. When he came back, he declared that war unwinnable.

    On February 27, 1968, Cronkite editorialized in the CBS Evening News: “For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” After watching Cronkite’s broadcast, LBJ was quoted as saying. “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” One month later on March 31st, Johnson told the nation he would not run for another term.

    When Cronkite spoke, people listened, even in the Oval Office. I think that’s the kind of broadcaster the author of the above article was talking about.

    And you don’t have to be James Earl Jones or Dennis Haysbert to have that kind of authority.

  17. starbroker Says:

    I can’t think of any network vog dudes I’d listen to for “their take”.

    Yes, several of the actors mentioned above possess a quality like that which make them good for doing voice over work in ads.

    The only “newsman” that I can think of which has that quality and one you could actually “trust” in what he says –is BILL CURTIS.

  18. Not after all those Geico commercials you can’t. He’s become a charicature…

    And you aren’t listening for vog men or women to hear their take. Sure some may make pronouncements now and again which resonates with viewers but that’s not the purpose of the vog. It’s the reassurance element. That and the fact that you’re taking a journey with the anchor as the story is revealed. Few anchors have the ability to get all the way through to the other side of a story without screwing the pooch in some manner…

  19. joeremi Says:

    -Bill Kurtis-

    He’s good in those commercials, but I wince every time I see them, remembering his work as the first American journalist on the Chernobyl site.

  20. Another thing missing from the days of the vog anchor is that we no longer collectively watch them. Today, some of us watch a whole bunch of anchors or flip back and forth with our remotes. Not that many years ago we only had three choices for our evening news (plus the MacNeil/Lehrer Report) and those newscasts were the next morning’s watercooler topics.

    It’s much harder to establish the level of trust today.

  21. […] “Voice of God” still has a purpose today (CNN, for instance), particularly when serious news breaks and people are eager for a quick, […]

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