[Marxism] Death of Peter Jennings
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 collapsedand 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.
Its 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? Its
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
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 Corporations 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
southmoney, 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 administrations drive to war, he
didnt 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 ABCs 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 administrations 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
difficultiesalong the lines of Edward R. Murrows Harvest of Shame in
1960or 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 were 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 (NBCs Today and
ABCs 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 ABCs 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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