Cheerleaders, high-school beauty queens, pretty boys not interested in the pain and sweat of varsity athletics (or varsity athletes looking for the fast track to the broadcast booth)—these were the people in the mid-1980s who went into television journalism. People who thought that learning all the technical parts of the equipment was beneath them because, well, their job was to look glamorous and be on television. Boy, were they surprised.
I mention these mist-shrouded memories because of the passing of the last of the real television newsmen—Peter Jennings. Like this writer, Jennings had no college degree; he didn’t even graduate from high school. Jennings learned the hard way; after being thrust into a job far above his pay grade and hitting the wall, he took off and did the real work. Jennings went and became an expert in the most convoluted, dangerous, and trouble-stricken part of the world, the Middle East.
You have to understand that nowadays the TV news business will air-drop a “face” correspondent into a scene; his or her job is to pump the local producer dry of every bit of knowledge, and then, like David Brinkley used to tell newbies, “fake sincerity” that they knew all along what was going on. The networks have far too much money invested in their big-shot talent to actually make them real experts by stationing them out in the middle of God-knows-where, learning who really runs the show, why people X hate people Y, and what it all means. We are a country that thinks that “international news” means what’s going on with the immigrant population in California, so no one will really know the difference if Our Man in Beirut knows his ass from his elbow.
Nineteen years ago, this writer applied to become a summer desk assistant at ABC News, to fill in for people who handled the phones when havoc broke out all over the planet. This was right about the time that the Reagan administration gutted the Fairness Doctrine and the rest of the communications laws that made possible the rise of advocacy broadcast journalism and the eventual coming of things like the Fox News Channel. In spring of 1986 the United States bombed Libya, and on the day of my interview Dean Norland, the news-desk manager at ABC, let me sit in Ted Koppel’s chair on the set of Nightline and listen to the bombs drop as Charles Jaco, the network’s man on the scene at the time, hung his microphone out of his hotel window to catch the explosions.
At the time, CBS may have been living on its reputation as “the Tiffany network,” but ABC was the place to be. By the end of the decade, its promotional spots would declare that “more Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source.” And the face of that network was Peter Jennings.
CBS had Dan Rather, whose corn-pone charm originated covering hurricanes hitting the Texas coast. Tom Brokaw, a son of the Midwest, was considered a lightweight when he first took the NBC anchor desk after spending time on the Today show. Only Jennings, inheriting the anchor desk after the collapse of the three-anchor format of ABC’s World News Tonight, had the gravitas to step up and remind Americans that we were one part of an increasingly complicated world at a time when the Cold War raged, and we had a president who undiplomatically referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” When dealing with an overseas correspondent by telephone one time, I recall an operator butting in to the call, only to hear Jennings switch to flawless French and convince the operator to get off the line. Try and imagine any of today’s blow-dried mannequins doing that.
Hunter S. Thompson saved choice words for the practice of journalism, and the recently deceased writer had hardly anything but contempt for the TV version of his chosen profession. Outside of sports, he had little use for it—and watching so-called news anchors on cable like Bill O’Reilly, Shepard Smith, John Gibson, or vapid newsreaders like Stone Phillips or Ashleigh Banfield, makes one wonder about the future of the medium that had so much promise when Edward R. Murrow stood on London rooftops at the end of World War II.
We are as informed as the news we get in this interconnected world, and when we are spoon-fed bits of nonsense about the latest missing white woman, we almost deserve the ugly world we inherit, terrorism and all. Ben Franklin predicted the end of liberty if we weren’t able to pay attention, and the simpletons we accept as our news anchors reflect this. We don’t have any more men like Peter Jennings, and more’s the worse for us because of it. He told us what was really going on, and we were better people because of it.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201