The Passing Icon


There are very few deaths one should cheer, but there are far too many that generate undeserved accolades. Perhaps more carefully expressed: accolades without adequate qualification. When Richard Nixon died, many spoke of his checkered -- Checkers included -- past, but few talked substantively about his heinous record before and during the McCarthy era, his prolongation of the war in Vietnam, and his attempts to undermine civil liberties. Ronald Reagan, who squandered trillions on the military and presided over the purchase of Congress, was all but canonized.

So it is with Peter Jennings, the vaunted ABC News anchorman who died of lung cancer over the weekend at the age of 67. He had traveled the world, delivering news to tens of millions of people thousands of evenings over dozens of years. There will be a recitation of the historic events on which he reported and the myriad awards and other recognition that were bestowed upon him.

Though certainly he wasn't criminal in the sense of the politicians who are excessively fêted upon their demise, there is another side to the Jennings story that will likely go unreported because it involves nuance in a broad-strokes society. And because we're living with the results of his reign, it also involves consequences we don't want to acknowledge.

Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw were the catbirds during the decline of network television news. They not only anchored but they also had themselves credited as the managing editors of their broadcasts, so none of them can escape responsibility for what they did and didn't do. Let's make clear, too, that they weren't told what to say by their corporate bosses. And the result of their tenure that jumps out is the 50 percent decline in the television audience watching them every night.

Some might ascribe the drop in ratings to the wider choice presented by cable and satellite, but that is only part of the picture. The larger truth is that after Walter Cronkite left in 1981, the quality of the network news began to slip. The focus shifted from the steak to the sizzle. It was apparent in the ratio of features to hard news, a programming decision designed to attract more viewers for the "entertainment" value of such programming.

Another proof of the slide was the commercials, which shifted toward targeting an older audience, the only people still watching, mostly out of habit. Network news became something of a palliative, losing its relevance in a complicated world that required more time and better writing to explain. The producers, abetted by the anchors, decided the audience wouldn't sit still for any explanations that required thought, so they fed them pathos and pictures.

Here's a metaphor. Ask someone to complete the phrase, "A picture is worth ... " and 999 times out 1,000 the answer will be "a thousand words." However, if you look up the phrase in Bartlett's, you'll find that the original Chinese expression was "ten thousand words." Such is the power of the editor. If it takes too long to explain, leave it for the newspapers. TV news, its producers insist, is just a headline service.

Another failure of the network news operations, anchored by Jennings, Brokaw and Rather – plus MacNeil-Lehrer at PBS and the second-stringers who gravitated to cable -- was that they bent over backwards to avoid charges from Republicans that they were too liberal when they reported on the calamitous doings of the Reagan Administration. They let important stories slip from view after a news cycle because they didn't want to appear biased. In fact, they were biased -- in favor of avoiding being attacked for justly informing the American people on the critical issues of the day.

They never stood up again, and that is why so many in our country were deceived into believing there was justification for invading Iraq. If any of the network news anchors alone had insisted on reporting the truth, the invasion couldn't have happened, but all of them were cowed. They hid behind the excuse that the opposition party didn't object so there weren't any objections to report. Perhaps they had private misgivings, but probably not. You can't supplicate for two decades and still really care.

Indeed, what Jennings, Brokaw and Rather did borders on treason. If you think that's ridiculous hyperbole, consider what has happened to our country over the past quarter-century. An honest history of that time would illuminate the unconscionable interventions in Grenada, Beirut, Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador; the instigation of the first Gulf War; the giveaways to the agriculture, telecommunications, energy, insurance and pharmaceutical industries; the purchase of our political system by special interests ... the wide spread degradation of our once-great nation.

And the fault lies squarely on the shoulders not just of politicians, but also of the media that allowed their lies to spread like a thick coating of manure over an undiscerning public. These purported news anchors were the color commentators as the naked emperor paraded his perversion through the corridors of power.

I worked with Peter Jennings during the 1970s, writing his copy when he anchored the news on "AM America" and producing news coverage when he was an anchor on "World News Tonight." He was a decent-enough fellow, though completely taken with himself. He could work very hard, strive for the finest in reportage but at times he was officious and other times lazy.

It is not unfair to compare him to long-term politicians by noting that during his tenure, the United States went from being the leading creditor nation to the leading debtor nation; that we now supply half the world's arms, we rank 40th in infant mortality, we have more people in prison than any other developed nation, and the gap between our rich and poor is astronomical.

Jennings, Brokaw and Rather had the power to do something, to solve problems, or at least to turn them around, by revealing the facts and exploring possibilities. They didn't. They had the attention of a news-hungry nation and they fed them a gruel-thin diet of meaninglessness masquerading as journalism. There were no major scoops, no Deep Throats, no holding to the fire the feet of the fools and miscreants who had taken over leadership of the nation.

Perhaps as we would love the sinner while hating the sin, it is appropriate to mourn the man. But if we are to be truthful about his record, it is necessary that we also rue the depth of his anchor.

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