Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings

Died yesterday of lung cancer. He was 67.

I always liked Jennings. Even in my most militant media activist days, when I routinely spat on my TV and yelled "Bullshit!" and "Liar!" at whatever news anchor was onscreen, Jennings was the calm in my storm. Not that he was perfect nor free of corp media taint -- he worked for ABC-Cap Cities (later, Disney) after all. But Jennings had the look and posture of someone who knew that deeper truths existed, and occasionally these truths appeared in his news copy, however briefly. It was this that drove the right wing nuts (well, nuttier). Oh, they could go on and on about Dan Rather's communism and treason, but Rather was their punching bag, an easy, reliable target. Jennings, on the other hand, really frightened them. His subtle intelligence was hard for them to hit, so in their frustration they'd take wild swings at his reputation. To my knowledge, they never truly connected.

I've been on panels and in debates where the rightist media critic I was paired with (usually someone from Accuracy in Media, though I tangled a few times with Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center) would "prove" Jennings's political bias by going after two of his spouses. His second wife, Annie Malouf, was Lebanese, and this, coupled with Jennings's years as a Middle East correspondent, operating primarily out of Beirut, suggested that Jennings was pro-Arab/anti-Israel. One opponent told me that Jennings knew a bit too much about the Arab world, and loved it enough to marry into it. What more proof did I need? (That he also apparently dated and remained friends with Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi added to his evil rep.)

His third wife, Kati Marton, showed that Jennings had communist leanings as well. Marton, Hungarian-born (ah hah!), worked for various media outlets, NPR (oh ho!)among them. And while she played an active part in organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, P.E.N. International, and Human Rights Watch, for rightists her real crime was writing "The Polk Conspiracy: Murder and Cover-up in the Case of CBS News Correspondent George Polk." Marton had the audacity to suggest that far from being murdered by Greek communists during that country's civil war in 1948, Polk, a CBS veteran, was lured into a death trap by Greek fascists who tried to pin his killing on the left. It is Sacred Truth to American right wingers that Polk was a victim of commie terror, even though he may have been (and probably was) a commie symp himself. Marton undermined this belief, and that she was married to Peter Jennings made matters even more sinister. But then, as I was always reminded, Jennings was Canadian, and hated America anyway.

I met Jennings once -- well, sort of. I introduced myself to him in front of millions of people on April 7, 1988. Jennings anchored a live, ABC News Viewpoint special about terrorism and the American media. There were to be questioners from the audience, and remarkably, I was chosen as one. I say remarkably because I told the woman doing the picking exactly what I wanted to discuss, namely, how the American corp media continually ignored the PLO's numerous calls for a two-state solution with Israel, based on mutual security guarantees and mutual recognition. I figured, why not be completely honest and see what happens. I'd just gotten a job as a junior media columnist for the New York Observer (which I recounted here), and I thought if she wouldn't allow me to say this on-air, I'd have something to write about. Instead, she put me in a prime spot, coming right off a commercial.

Jennings went directly to me, standing at a mike, attempting to hide my extreme nervousness since I knew that my question would be considered insane. When I look at the tape now, I'm impressed with how smooth I seem, given all the flying reptiles in my stomach (I'm less impressed with my haircut -- looks like I'm trying to pass as one of Echo and the Bunnymen). But not only did I get the question out to ABC Israel Bureau Chief Bill Seamans, I was allowed to rebut him and criticize his inaccurate response. Jennings then asked, "Do you have a follow-up question, Mr. Perrin?" to which I stupidly said "No." ABC's top news anchor was offering me more national airtime to make further points seldom heard in the mainstream, and I passed. I was relatively new to the pro media crit game. Rookie mistake.

Had Ted Koppel anchored that special, I seriously doubt I would've been given all that space. But Jennings seemed sincerely interested in what I had to say, and his little smile (not caught on camera) told me that he knew what I was saying was true, simply because it was being reported everywhere but here (with the exception of the New York Review of Books), and anyone who'd done any reading about the topic would understand this immediately.

Jennings consistently showed interest in subjects that other anchors would never touch. At a time when the US media pretty much ignored the US-backed Indonesian slaughter of East Timorese (wiping out about a third of their population), Jennings produced a report about the atrocities and who was responsible for them. During the build-up to the first Gulf War, when antiwar critics were being compared to Nazis, Jennings delivered a balanced look at the movement (divided though it was), and was the only network anchor to meet with antiwar media critics who marched on the Big Three to protest their slanted coverage. It was this type of engagement that pissed off the right. To them, the media's role is to parrot state propaganda, esp in a time of Repub domination and ongoing war, and anyone who doesn't is a traitor. Jennings rarely buckled on this front. He'd seen too much of the world to be crammed in a red, white and blue veal crate. For that alone, he deserves thanks from those who value expanded debate and inquiry, as well as aggressive journalism.

So long, Peter. And thanks for the airtime.