I came up with a question tonight, a question about freedom and responsibility – specifically, about the freedom of the press and the responsibility of the press. Most of this episode will be devoted to why I want to ask Peter Jennings this question. Precious little will be about the question itself. The question has nothing to do with 9/11, but my singling out of Peter Jennings is entirely about that day.
I had been watching football the night before. Ed McCaffery, the indestructible wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, had had his leg shattered. He was the guy that could take any hit and still catch the ball. I don’t remember whether he held on that time as his leg was being smashed into a kajillion pieces. If he caught it, and I think he did, he would have been an american legend. But that was 9/10.
Most mornings I wake up to the radio. I wake slowly. I fade in and out as the stories fill me. That morning I heard about a plane hitting the world trade center. That woke me up. I thought about the B-26(?) that had once hit the Empire State Building. Then I heard that another plane had hit the other tower. The radio reports I heard said the second plane had been a smaller one, but that didn’t matter. Two planes meant intent. I went into the other room and turned on the TV.
It was the same on every channel. Smoke billowing from the towers. Replays of a 767 smashing into the south tower from every angle. Flames billowing. Somewhere in those flames were people. People who, like me, thought of terrorism as a far-away thing. I sat on my comfy chair and watched in horror. As I did so, I found another outrage. Every station had across the bottom of the screen a graphic. They all featured a cross-hair, and said something like “America Under Attack” or “Attack On America”. The major news outlets were competing to brand the tragedy even as it happened.
There was only one exception. Peter Jennings sat at his desk, his tie a little off and his voice a little hoarse, and there were no exploitative graphics. I may be wrong, but I think the anchor still has control over that kind of thing when it really matters. Whether it was Peter or his boss, that news organization showed far more class that day than any other. So it was when the south tower fell I was listening to Peter as he saw it the same time I did. “Oh my God,” he said, or something like that, maybe one of those three words, but his voice caught and it was real and it was the full tragedy.
That day he stood in front of all with courage and compassion, without taking shelter behind slogans and marketing gimmicks. Since then I have afforded Peter Jennings with a degree of credibility I deny the rest of the breathless “journalists” of today. He could say a lot of things I disagree with, and he has, but I will never forget that day.
So that’s why Peter Jennings. I think he’s a journalist. I don’t think there are many others who make the national scene and remain journalists. So now, after that big emotional gush, I will leave you with the question, a hard intellectual nugget that you have to diagram before you digest. But it’s an important question to me.
So, Peter: Responsible journalists try hard to not tell lies. They check the veracity of the statements given them. If the president were to release a statement that research showed to be untrue, would you a) not print the story, or, b) print a story saying the president had lied?
I’m talking to a responsible journalist here, so “run the lie, it’ll sell papers” is not an option.