Poor Peter Jennings. In his prime, the most handsome of TV personalities dies from cruel cancer and those he left behind struggle mightily to attach more meaning to him than they have to. We should think of him as a movie star, glamorous, classy, suave. Good looks and gentlemanly demeanor still matter, more than ever in fact. He was television news’ leading man. Even Dan Rather knows as much. Look at the nice things he’s now saying about Peter, as if battening on to Jennings will improve his own sorry reputation.
Sure Jennings drove many conservatives nuts, not just because he was Canadian and couldn’t pronounce “about.” One remembers well his covering for Bill Clinton and, in his earlier years, the pro-PLO slant he legitimated in reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But this was also the same Jennings who was easily friendly with many conservatives and even went to bat for them behind the scenes. His former colleagues remember him as a stern taskmaster and hard worker, and there’s no reason not to take them at their word. It’s only when deciding what it all meant that they fall into difficulty. For them it’s not enough to find comfort in the steady job he did in his daily work. Television is artifice. Jennings imbued it with more meaning than it warrants. No wonder so many already miss the pleasure of his company.
For some reason TV honchos think covering a story is the equivalent of breaking it. Thus ABC lauds its man for having been in Berlin “when the Berlin wall was going up, and there in the '90s when it came down.” It says he covered “the civil rights movement in the southern United States” and the “struggle for equality” against apartheid in South Africa. He was “there …when Solidarity was born in a Polish shipyard, and again when communist leaders were forced from power.” He was all over the Soviet block “to record first the repression of communism and then its demise.” He was in Vietnam in the 1960s “and went back to the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1980s to remind Americans that, unless they did something, the terror would return.” Why, with a Herculean record like that, was he never awarded even a Nobel Peace Prize? Instead, all he got were numerous Peabody, du Pont, and Edward R. Murrow awards, and, for three straight years, the Washington Journalism Review’s “anchor of the year” recognition.
One of the nicest things anyone has said of Jennings was President Bush’s closing remark yesterday, “May God bless his soul.” Wouldn’t you know it, but the comment proved controversial. The Associated Press did not include it in some of its reports, and when it did include the line it decided to spell God as “god.” CBS omitted the line from its reports entirely. Bravely, CNN not only included the line, but spelled God with a capital “G.”
God and Jennings go back a ways. At the Media Research Center’s “DisHonors Awards” dinner last spring, just after it was learned the Jennings was suffering from lung cancer, no one had the stomach to make fun of a long-time nemesis. Indeed, everyone understood that there were more important things in life than the left-right fights that pass for domestic politics. But one speaker rather gauchely expressed hope that Jennings would now be able to work on his relationship with God. How lucky for everyone that our God is one of forgiveness.
That will be of little consolation to Jon Friedman of CBS’s “MarketWatch,” who yesterday praised ABC’s and CNN’s coverage of Jennings’s death while letting it be known that the other networks proved woeful. “Either they were lazy or unprepared or disinterested [sic] — or maybe they simply preferred to broadcast old movies and re-runs.” Friedman’s verdict: “Shame on them all.” So the post-Jennings era begins.
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