Peter Jennings under heavy fire

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

“Ever the contrarian.” That’s one phrase used by Roone Arledge to describe ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in “Roone,” the Arledge autobiography to be published, posthumously of course, by HarperCollins next month. The book is absolutely captivating, as was the man who wrote it.
Those of us least likely to be called fans of Jennings will be pleased to find a few supporting arguments from Mr. Arledge, though it is clear Mr. Arledge had considerable respect for Jennings as a journalist. At one point, though, Jennings is referred to as “prickly Peter,” a nickname that deserves to stick.
Although backstage rivalry between Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters is anything but a closely guarded secret, in and out of the business, Mr. Arledge says, “Much the greater tension, very largely unpublicized, was that between Ted [Koppel] and Peter.” That it was largely unpublicized may add further proof to the notion that the public loves a catfight much more than it relishes a dog-eat-dogger.
Jennings loftily refused to pinch-hit for Koppel on Nightline, Mr. Arledge recalled, but once, when he just couldn’t avoid doing it, he insisted that he not be introduced as “substituting for Ted Koppel.”
Jennings has been under heavy fire lately and deservedly so. He was busy on the night we began bombing Baghdad and the war began and didn’t arrive on ABC’s air until well after NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather of CBS had taken command. More recently, Jennings was part of a colossal foul-up, abruptly ending a news special that ABC had told affiliates would continue much longer. Some stations were left with dead air.
That was more serious an infraction than the time Rather wasn’t in his anchor chair to begin The CBS Evening News because commentators from CBS Sports vamoosed sooner than expected at the end of a tennis match. But Jennings hardly suffered the criticism and ridicule that Rather did, most likely because he’s not nearly so prominent a target for right-wing whiners as is Rather.
Prickly Pete’s latest misbehavior confirms the impression some of us have that he is supercilious, self-adoring and maybe the ultimate imperial anchor. Much more bothersome and by no means imaginary is the persistent anti-Israeli, pro-Arab bias Jennings has shown over the years, a bias that seems to creep up in his coverage of the war with Iraq.
Jennings is always worrying on the air about “the Muslim world” and how it will react and how deeply concerned we should all be with how it reacts. Of course, looking for signs of bias in a network newscaster-the proverbial “raised eyebrow” sort of thing-is a tricky and risky business. But Jennings’ whole attitude toward the war seems to be one of annoyance. He disapproves of it, therefore dislikes reporting about it. It seems a nuisance to him.
The most hostile attack on Jennings since the war began appeared as an editorial in the New York Post, one that condemned as a “disgrace” a prime-time special Jennings anchored and managing-edited about the war. The Post called it “an uninterrupted three hours of America-bashing, pessimism and anti-war agitation.”
One wants to shout a hooray, but then one has to consider the source. War, like politics, makes strange bedfellows, or embedfellows as the case may be. It’s thus disconcerting to find yourself in the same corner as the New York Post or with anything else that has Rupert Murdoch’s imprint on it.
Like Fox News, for example. On last Thursday’s edition of The O’Reilly Factor, starring the easily o’riled Bill O’Reilly, commentator (or whatever she’s supposed to be) Michelle Malkin trounced Jennings for the “sneering” way he reports on American progress in the war. She charged that Jennings is serving as “a U.S.-based correspondent for Al-Jazeera.” Whew.
Then it got really complicated, because O’Reilly jumped in to bestow upon Jennings what in O’Reilly’s mind must be the ultimate accolade: Jennings, he said, is a “friend” of his. To O’Reilly, Jennings is not so much biased as just “skeptical.” The moral of that story is: Become a friend of Bill O’Reilly and you’ve got a get-out-of-jail-free card for life. So much for bully-boy Billy’s no-spin stance.
Malkin, incidentally, also included Colin Powell among her list of offenders. She called him a “dove” (!), which is apparently comparable to “atheist” or “commie.” Then came crackpot Dick Morris to say that the ultimate message of the war is that “We can trust our government,” after all. Do you suppose Dick knows that the United States was founded by geniuses who knew that government was intrinsically and inherently something not to be trusted?
Maybe by “government,” Morris meant “the Bush administration.” On Fox, there’s a lot of hot air to the effect that bashing Bush constitutes a lack of support for our troops. Certainly this is the time to repress whatever misgivings one may have about Bush’s fitness to be president, but Bush and “the troops” are not the same. Further, there were not-so-subtle suggestions on the O’Reilly show that once America wins this war, the meanies who opposed it should be rounded up and, in Malkin’s phrase, made to “pay a price” for their misbehavior.
Good Lord, it’s going to be the ’50s again. And you know what that means: We’ll have to live through the ’60s again too. Help! I’m a human being-let me out of here!
Meanwhile, I would tell you what Mr. Arledge says about me in his book, but I am out of time. I can say, as someone who was quoted in praise of the amazing Mr. Arledge at his memorial service, that I am pleased to have been mentioned at all. Pleased and, indeed, honored.