[Marxism] Death of Peter Jennings

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 11 12:18:02 MDT 2005

The death of Peter Jennings and the state of the American media
By David Walsh
11 August 2005

 From an objective standpoint, that ABC television devoted virtually all of 
its “World News Tonight” August 8 to the death by lung cancer of its former 
anchorman Peter Jennings was rather astonishing. The war in Iraq continues, 
starvation stalks Niger, the price of oil is soaring, the Japanese 
government has collapsed—and ABC felt that it should give over its nightly 
review of international affairs to a man who, when all is said and done, 
was best known for reading the news. Rival news programs, on NBC and CBS, 
also dedicated an inordinate amount of time to Jennings’ passing.

One can understand colleagues and friends being saddened by such a loss. 
It’s only natural. But for professional news gatherers and commentators, it 
betrays an extraordinary loss of perspective. The attention paid to 
Jennings was so obviously disproportionate to his role in American 
political life. He was not an immense personality in any meaningful sense. 
How many deaths end up as subjects of entire news programs in America? It’s 
hard to think of a single figure who would receive such treatment, aside 
from the president of the United States or perhaps the Pope. What does all 
this indicate?

Jennings was clearly articulate, clever. He was relatively rare in his 
profession in that one sensed that he knew something about the items he was 
reporting, and perhaps knew more than he was reporting. He had an 
advantage, he was not an American, and grew up in a slightly more critical 
atmosphere. Jennings’ father was a pioneer in radio news in Canada and 
later head of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s news division.

According to the New York Times, “Mr. Jennings was conscious of having been 
imbued, during his Canadian boyhood, with a skepticism about American 
behavior; at least partly as a result, he often delighted in presenting the 
opinions of those in the minority, whatever the situation.”

Such concerns did not prevent him from choosing a career in American 
television news in 1964, pursuing whatever it was that lured him 
south—money, a bigger limelight. Still, he demonstrated, particularly in 
regard to the Middle East in the 1970s, an ability to comment with some 
degree of objectivity and knowledge.

As time went on, however, and his prominence grew, virtually all traces of 
that earlier, more critical edge wore off. The extreme right in the US, of 
course, considered him to the end a dangerous, foreign “Other.” The 
National Review in 2004 portrayed Jennings as a veiled opponent of the war 
in Iraq and quoted him as saying, “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.” A noble sentiment, but, unhappily, not 
one which he lived up to.

If Jennings was skeptical about the Bush administration’s drive to war, he 
didn’t let the public in on the secret. The paranoid right reads a great 
deal into the occasional raised eyebrow. Reports he filed from Iraq in 
January 2005, available on ABC’s web site, are entirely conventional and 
conformist, repeating the official line without question. Jennings was as 
complicit as any of his colleagues at the network anchor desks and cable 
channels in the unfolding of the Iraqi catastrophe and all the lies that 
have accompanied it.

During their maudlin tribute to Jennings on “World News Tonight,” his 
colleagues at ABC referred to him as a “consummate reporter.” He was no 
such thing. A penetrating journalist would have had no difficulty in 
uncovering and exposing the Bush administration’s lies about weapons of 
mass destruction, the supposed ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda and all the 
rest. If he had done that, he would have left a legacy of real value.

But if Jennings had seriously questioned the behavior of government 
officials over Iraq “on behalf of the public,” he would not have kept his 
$10 million-a-year salary, nor received grateful tributes from George W. 
Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Democrats John Kerry and Nancy 
Pelosi after his death.

One pays a price, however, for this kind of acquiescence and subordination 
to the interests of the powers that be. He may have been liked by his 
viewers, or envied, like so many other American celebrities, but there is 
no indication that he evoked deep affection within broad layers of the 
population. How could it be otherwise? One cannot point to a single 
broadcast of his that expressed a deep concern for their lives and 
difficulties—along the lines of Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame in 
1960—or revealed some harsh truth about America that led to genuine 
soul-searching. Instead, for the most part, he adapted himself to the 
tabloidizing of American television news, hosting programs, for example, 
about “The Search for Jesus” and UFOs.

Listening to the glowing comments of his colleagues from ABC Monday night 
(Charles Gibson described Jennings as “at times, brilliant”), one was 
struck above all by two things.

First, these were mediocrities praising, in the final analysis, a somewhat 
more talented member of the same club. What had allowed him to rise to the 
“pinnacle of success,” one senses, was his greater than average competence 
and interest in world events. In praising Jennings as a giant in the field, 
the talking heads provided some indication of how ignorant and parochial 
the rest must be.

Second, the program underscored the degree of self-absorption and 
self-fascination that prevails in mainstream media circles. These people 
were covering themselves Monday night as the most important news story of 
the day (or any other day, if it comes to that). If ABC dedicated its news 
program to Jennings’ death, it was not the result of momentary weakness or 
mere sentimentality. His demise is a major event for the few thousand 
people high up in the media. It has reverberations that the outsider can 
only guess at.

Most directly, a great deal is at stake for ABC News and its rivals: the 
fate of individual careers and perhaps entire divisions, dependent on 
television ratings whose fluctuations determine how many millions of 
dollars advertisers can be charged.

One sensed the self-centeredness in the shocked response to Jennings’ 
death: “One of us has passed away! All that wealth, the best of everything, 
and we’re still not immortal!” Those interviewed clearly found it disturbing.

Beyond that, the passing away of one of the three principal communicators 
of news information to the American public has political implications. The 
anchor people at the major networks play a central role in the creation of 
that synthetic product known as “American public opinion,” i.e., informing 
the population what it thinks now and what it should think in the future.

Public opinion in the US is formed by a painstaking process, a daily cycle 
through which the media fixes its “take” on events and transmits that to 
its viewing audience. On the morning television programs (NBC’s “Today” and 
ABC’s “Good Morning America” in particular) the basic stories are laid out. 
Often a major government figure will be interviewed. The American people 
are told what their concerns and opinions are. On the three network evening 
programs, one is given the official version of what happened during the 
day, the events are packaged and tied up neatly. The anchor person sums up 
the day and puts it all in perspective. If a significant event takes place 
late enough in the day so that the official line has not entirely been 
worked out by 6:30 or 7 p.m., there is always ABC’s “Nightline” at 11:30 
p.m. or the comic monologues on the late-night talk shows. By the next 
morning, the cycle begins again. In this manner the American ruling elite 
strives to create a national consensus.

The process has been more or less perfected. The problem, however, is that 
the entire media machine has been systematically discredited by its 
deplorable role on every major political question of the last two decades.

The evening news programs and their avuncular anchormen, in particular, 
fulfill a quite significant function. These individuals are not simply 
talking heads, mere empty vessels. Their job is to hold the country 
together, particularly at those moments when events threaten to get out of 
hand in a country so heterogeneous and so internally divided along social, 
ethnic and demographic lines. The demeanor and voice of a Jennings are 
meant to reassure the public that everything is under control, continuity 
has been preserved, the old institutions are operating smoothly.

In that sense, the final departures of Jennings, Dan Rather of CBS and Tom 
Brokaw of NBC, all within the space of eight months, create a certain 
nervousness in the media and political establishment. An editorial in the 
New York Times reflected this. The headline, “The Last Anchor,” is a play 
on words: “anchor” as in anchorman and also any object that secures firmly.

The Times notes, with Jennings, Rather and Brokaw all off the air, the 
“power to present the news divides and subdivides again, almost 
geometrically, into an army of new voices and an array of less-famous 
faces. At this point, the three nightly network news programs still draw 
many more people each night than even the noisiest cable programs. And that 
number goes up in emergencies. But the audience of people who routinely 
stop and sit down around dinnertime to see the news is steadily shrinking 
and swiftly aging. The next generation seems ready to taste the huge buffet 
of news and mock-news in print and on radio, television and the Internet.”

America is headed into uncharted waters, without a number of the reassuring 
faces and voices that in the past conferred the imprimatur of legitimacy on 
so many lies and crimes.



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