Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"Peter Jennings - Reporter"

Watching the two-hour special on Peter Jennings' life (and I mean two-hour - no commercial interruptions) was, in some ways, an incredibly sad experience. Not just sadness as a life interrupted, but also at the fact that Jennings' passing was really the end of an era. Here was a reporter who actually seemed totally devoted to reporting - and not just on the big stories, though he clearly excelled in them, but also the little stories, the ones that not many people cared or knew about, the stories that could get him in trouble. I was struck at how many documentaries he did that probably could never get produced today because they were critical of the U.S. government or something like that. I liked that the special did not shy away from the fact that he was a work in progress, that it took time and struggle for Jennings to achieve the skill that made him so revered in the industry. And I liked that the show dealt with perhaps the main controversy of his professional career, the allegation that he was somehow anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. And his doggedness to get to the truth and the heart of the story, even when he was being eaten alive by cancer and nowhere near the newsroom. One producer choked up talking about the one of the last calls Jennings made to ABC News from his sickbed - directing the troops as to how they should properly cover the London bombings. The program also didn't avoid the painful fact of what killed Jennings. One entire segment was devoted to his addiction to cigarettes - and, noted with some irony, his coverage of the tobacco industry. Even a tobacco executive spoke about how Jennings covered the story with tenaciousness, but always with fairness.

All of the examining of his career brought home one big point: that while Jennings was not a perpetrator of so-called media bias, he definitely saw his job as more than just a mere reciting of the news of the day. He most likely saw himself as an advocate - for those stories he thought deserved more coverage, and for those people who touched his heart or were in need. And you have to ask: How many of the current crop of reporters, even the superstars, have that in them? And what of the next generation?

There was also much about Jennings the man - a man, friends pointed out, who took great, and successful, pains to keep his private life private. A camera went into his empty, cluttered office, filled with books on almost every topic. His myriad of awards were kept in a very special location there - his private bathroom. His sister, who sounds almost exactly like him, was interviewed extensively. Friends noted that he was shy (explaining his ability to communicate with children) and that he was very cheap, almost ashamed that he was wealthy. His curiosity about America, religion, and more was forever insatiable. One person spoke of his volunteer work at a local homeless shelter after being genuinely shocked that such poverty could exist just 40 blocks from his Manhattan home. He regularly hosted an annual jazz festival at his own home in support of a favorite charity. And there was his family - his wife, who he always called "Darling." His kids, to whom he was passionately devoted. Video was shown of him all but completely losing it when he was speaking at his daughter's high school graduation seven years ago, saying how proud he was that she had done something her father had never done.

Maybe most extraordinary of all, and lost in the tragedy of Jennings' loss or this celebration of his career, was the speed in which this 120 minutes was put together. Remember that ABC admitted that nothing was prepared in advance prior to his death. The folks there had basically two days to produce this special. Many people were interviewed, from nearly every big name (and a lot of not-so-big names) at ABC News were interviewed, along with everyone from President Clinton and Condoleezza Rice to Antonin Scalia and Al Sharpton and Alan Alda (both close friends of his). And the clips and the file footage - that alone made this show a fantastic achievement, one that, even with some mild mawkishness, was Emmy worthy. It's too bad they had to make it.

If you didn't see it, I hope ABC replays it so you can.

1 comment:

ryan said...

What well written and eloquent piece David! I missed the special, but after reading your review I feel as if I was there. --ryan