Monday, August 08, 2005

Column on Peter Jennings RIP

Peter Jennings, Not A Champ Journalist
Tibor R. Machan
It is always sad when a fairly young and well liked celebrity dies and
that?s true even with Peter Jennings, the long time ABC-TV News anchor who
succumbed to lung cancer at 67 the other day. Major media editors and
reporters tended to like him, as they have liked Dan Rather, in part
because of his very appealing demeanor, in part because he tended to share
their left of center values. You couldn?t miss it, although it was rarely
put into words. Mostly, Mr. Jennings indicated his partisanship by means
of body language?his frowns, head shaking, condescending smiles, and
similar gestures?so viewers and listeners could hardly miss where he stood
when he reported on some politically or socially hot topic.
As The New York Times reported in its Monday, August 8th, edition, ?Mr.
Jennings was not without his detractors. Some critics contended he was too
soft on the air when describing the Palestinian cause or the regime of the
Cuban leader Fidel Castro?charges he disputed. Similarly, a July 2004
article in the National Review portrayed him as a thinly veiled opponent
of the American war in Iraq.?
Despite his denials, there is little doubt of what National Review
reported. But never mind, it?s not really malpractice for major or minor
reporters to be partisan. They are human beings with values, whether they
admit this or not, and holding values cannot but be in evidence,
especially in the role Mr. Jennings held.
There is, however, something to be noted about a statement Jennings is
quoted to have made in the National Review piece, as well as The New York
Times article. He, in denying his on air partisanship, claimed: "That is
simply not the way I think of this role. This role is designed to question
the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public." Is this
really so? Was Peter Jennings conception of his own journalistic duty
First of all, no one designed the role he held?it emerged as a fluke and
side effect of the distorted network news phenomenon, one that was
sustained for decades by the FCC?s perverse policy of making the three
networks into a broadcast oligopoly. No free, competitive press in
broadcasting would have sustained this institution.
Second, and more importantly, no one has designated Mr. Jennings & Co. as
the inquisitors of government officials ?on behalf of the public.? No one
could, and it is gross presumption to think that somehow one has such a
role, no matter how hefty one?s paycheck and popular one?s face before
viewing audiences.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with questioning government officials,
but that questioning is not on behalf of some fictitious public but on
behalf of one?s producers, oneself, one?s idea of what is important and so
forth. Certainly millions and millions who are members of the public did
not share Mr. Jennings? framework within which his questions were the ones
he kept asking.
I, for one, would have wanted him to ask something of all government
officials which he never did, namely, ?How come you believe it is
justified to rob Peter and hand the loot over to Paul, as you do routinely
in your role as a government official?? No, this question, a question not
just one member of the public would have liked to be asked over and over
again, wasn?t asked by Mr. Jennings or, indeed, by most of his colleagues
in network TV News. (The one exception is John Stossell, and reportedly
Mr. Jennings wasn?t fond of his colleague at ABC TV News.)
It?s time these celebrity journalists recognize they aren?t messengers of
God or the public but professionals who are supposed to do competent
reporting. We might get better coverage then. We might also get a frank
admission from them that, yes, they, like other people, have values that
guide their actions, namely, their reporting, and viewers better watch out
for this.

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