The End of a Media Era
Growing up, I remember tuning in to Peter Jennings every evening with my family.
We looked to him to break down the day's events for us; back then, the world news was actually about the world, and we would watch as he traveled to Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia to describe the scene firsthand.
His word was good as gold: there was no question that his facts and figures were to be trusted. If he said 10,000 Ethiopians a week were dying in the famine, that was indeed the case. If he said the terrorists who took the Israeli Olympic team hostage at the 1972 Summer Olympics were part of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September, then lo and behold, they were. When he said in an interview about his job, "This role is designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public," we believed him.
His death this week from lung cancer was the top story on every channel. Among the glowing praise for the 27-year veteran of the nightly news, some called him "the anchor's anchor," "the ultimate in cool," and "a suave, Cary Grant-style icon."
One viewer wrote in to ABC to say that he hadn't been this affected since the death of J.F.K. Even President Bush noted his death, saying, "He covered many important events, events that helped define the world as we know it today. A lot of Americans relied upon Peter Jennings for their news."
What other news figure, aside from the now-retired Tom Brokaw or the dethroned Dan Rather (whom Bush certainly won't eulogize), would receive so much public praise upon his death?
It turns out, though, that ABC's record was not an exemplary model of fairness in reporting while Jennings was on the throne. ABC was the most aggressive network to pursue Whitewater and Kenneth Starr's investigation of the Clintons, sometimes reporting blatant rumors as fact and not bothering to verify leaks from Starr's office.
President Clinton himself criticized Jennings during a November 2004 interview when Jennings said that some thought Clinton's presidency lacked "moral authority."
"You don't want to go here, Peter," Clinton retorted. "Not after what you people did and the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr. The way your people repeated every little sleazy thing he leaked. No one has any idea what that's like."
On the other side, conservative groups often lambasted Jennings for being anti-American. During ABC's coverage of the build-up to the Iraq war, they said he was giving too much airtime to anti-war protesters. He was also criticized for being anti-Israeli and pro-Arab.
But the vast majority of Americans who watched Jennings were like my family: We believed that he was trying his damnedest to be fair and impartial. We did not look behind his words to see what corporate bosses or political interests were whispering in his ear.
Today, Americans don't know of any journalists they can trust or relate to on a personal level, the way they did with Jennings. The fact is, there is no similar figurehead still working in journalism. That's part of the reason that Jennings' death represents a broad shift in the relationship between the American public and the media. It is now one of distrust and skepticism.
Nowadays, when Americans get their news, there is always a little voice in the back of their head asking, Is that true? When CNN says thousands of Iraqis have died in the war, we wonder if it's not tens of thousands. When CBS runs a story about the Congress boosting military spending by a few billion, we wonder why they didn't show the accompanying protest that drew a crowd of thousands. When Fox News says, well, anything, we wonder how a station posing as journalistic can be such an open mouthpiece of the administration.
Much of this shift is a result of the broadening of scope of news journalism. When Jennings assumed the foreign desk anchor's chair in 1978, cable news was barely a dream resting on Ted Turner's pillow. The networks and the newspapers held the power in reporting information.
But cable news, the Internet, and blogs acted as sharp, successive blows to the networks' armor. Americans today are now, more than ever, critical about news coverage, in part because we can always find a dissenting opinion. We wonder whether the reporter is being impartial, or whether he or she actually got the full story. We turn to multiple news sources to get our information. We don't take any one anchor or editor's word as "objective." We can't -- not after that other third of the Holy Trinity of broadcast news, Dan Rather, made an "error in judgment" in trusting the authenticity of documents that supported a story about President Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard.
And most importantly, we wonder how figureheads like Jennings, so lauded during his career, could have been duped into reporting that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, and then why he did not cry "foul" when he found out.
Will we suffer from the loss of our trusted figurehead, and our trust in American media? Or will our newfound skepticism about the news and its sources help us in the long run? Tell us what you think.