Thursday, April 27, 2000

Risking the human element

By Laura Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While ABC bigshots Sam Donaldson, Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings fretted about Leonardo DiCaprio's foray into television journalism, much more interesting personnel changes were afoot. By the time the Titanic hottie's Earth Day interview with President Clinton was aired last week, Ananova had made her first appearance.

        Her creators at the British Press Association say the computer-animated talking head looks like Posh Spice. Actually, she looks more like Cokie Roberts with Katie Couric's hairdo. Or maybe Newscaster Barbie. Her first words: “Hello, world. Here is the news — and this time, it's personal.”

        Personal. But not human.

        Ananova, who appears on the Internet, is the world's first virtual newscaster. Her Web page ( answers questions, such as why she wears the same clothes every day. “She's very keen to have a much more extensive wardrobe, but her programers and animators told her she'd have to wait.”

        Barbara Walters wouldn't put up with this nonsense.

        Right here in Cincinnati, we learned recently that longtime WLWT news anchor Norma Rashid received a $5,000 clothing allowance. Poor Ananova wears the same green frock every day. And never complains.

        The British news agency decided most of us want to get our information from a woman with a “vaguely American” accent, plump lips and green hair. Her cyberbio says she is 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 28 years old. The “quietly intelligent” woman watches The Simpsons and listens to Mozart and the rock band Oasis.

        They don't say so, but I'll bet her favorite movie is The Stepford Wives.

        She is programmed to exhibit appropriate human emotions, looking up just slightly but directly into the nonexistent camera. Producers press buttons to match up her expression with the news she's delivering. It wouldn't do to have her batting her eyes and smirking through an account of, say, a school shooting or a plane crash.

        That wouldn't be quietly intelligent.

No untidy qualities
        “She doesn't exhibit any of the less desirable adult personality traits,” says Mark Hird of British Press. I guess he means she won't ever ask for a raise or bring her kid to work. She won't catch cold. She won't have a bad hair day or a maternity leave. She won't get old unless her bosses approve. She won't talk back.

        Norma Rashid, who has appeared for 17 years as Channel 5's co-anchor, is not so accommodating. Claiming she was terminated last month for reasons of age, sex and disability discrimination, she is suing the station.

        This is something Ananova would never do.

        You also wouldn't run into Ananova at Tower Place toting three shopping bags. She wouldn't drink and drive. She wouldn't get crow's feet or a bum ticker. Ananova wouldn't ask impertinent questions or help raise money to wipe out birth defects.

        If Ananova makes her employers happy, maybe we can expect her cousins to seek work in other areas. Managed care companies could hire cyberdocs to explain why we don't need overnight hospital stays and expensive drugs. Virtual teachers could recite the lesson without making uncomfortable demands on administrators or noticing kids who are troubled or bruised.

        And if that is not ideal for human beings, I don't expect it will be the lead story on Ananova's news.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393.


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