I want to ask Peter Jennings a question

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.

13 thoughts on “I want to ask Peter Jennings a question

  1. Which one is retiring? Is that Jennings?

    I applaud you for making an ethical decision about journalists as well as other things that we are always told to make decisions about, e.g. grape boycotts, energy conservation. I let my subscription to Time magazine run out a while back. First they “artistically” distorted OJ’s mug shot on their cover, then a couple years later they got caught up with CNN in an unfounded “expose” on US Army chemical attacks in Laos or somesuch.

    Of course I didn’t cancel my subscription with a letter, so I guess my gesture was pretty lame.

  2. Strange. I, too, stuck with Peter Jennings on 9/11. With Walter Cronkite not available, and with Dan Rather getting too angry, I couldn’t stand CBS. Over on NBC, Brian Williams was doing a valiant job of waiting for Tom Brokaw to show up. But Peter Jennings, with his Canadian way of twisting the ends of his vowels, and with his ability to express his horror without getting melodramatic, just seemed to give the reassurance that was needed.

  3. On the other hand, I remember watching Paula Zahn on 9/12 talking about how she had been working nearly around the clock to cover the story and that all she had had for breakfast was a bagel, (and she honestly went so far as to stress this), “a stale bagel”.

    I’m sure that all CNN viewers were moved to redirect their emphathy from the victims and their families to the freshness of Paula’s bagel.

  4. I only had Larry (also Canadian) for my updates. ON set in a small Czech village it was Larry who kept us informed. Each ten minutes he would call with an update. As things got worse I was hoping Larry would quit calling. I have to admit, the fried chicken I was having for lunch was sort of ruined by the news, I can relate with the stale bagel…

  5. on the other hand: ‘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?’

    How much news would we get concerning Shrub? There are only so many Dubya Jr. has lied stories that will sell copies…

  6. Not quite on topic, but I still wanted to share. While reading an article on the new WW2 memorial, I ran across this quote:

    “I was never in favor of this attack on Iraq,” said Dick Chaney, one World War II veteran. “You’re never going to get a bunch of Muslims to let a bunch of Christians tell them how to run their country.”

    That’s one way to look at it, especially considering we have never had a president who didn’t go to church on Sunday.

  7. Here’s a great character reference:

    President Bush is often misunderstood by those who do not know him personally and are unaware of his sensitive side, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in a television interview on Sunday.

  8. Peter Jennings is on chanle seven here in Albuquerque. That is the only chanle that my scholl’s tv could pick up. The whole class had been talking when his jaw droped 1/2 an inch and he said “Oh my god. …” He said nothing for a moment, then explained in a tired, sad voice what the world had just seen. “Today we have witnesed a terrible tragedy. …”

  9. The whole scholl was silent. No students talking about what happened, no teachers telling classes about the size of the World Trade Center, no janitors sweeping the hals, no principals trying to keep order, nothing but Peter Jennings. The TV’s had been going on at a whisper, now they were a roar to tell of the events of 9/11.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *