Although it's been several months since ABC-TV Anchorman Peter Jennings last anchored ABC's World News Tonight, his cool insight and perspective on the world will be missed. His work and legacy were well documented by his colleagues and friends not long after his death in August of 2005. Jennings had tried to ensure that TV journalism made serious and intelligent efforts to look at events beyond our own noses.
My respect for Jennings surged when he addressed Washington State University's Murrow School of Communication in April of 2004. Of the thirty years of addresses by respected journalists, his remarks were the most relevant, the most intelligent.
After receiving the Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award, Jennings said it was "the pinnacle of my career," even though he had received many other prestigious awards.
Jennings made frequent references to the award's namesake, having studied Ed Murrow's 1958 address to the national gathering of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. That address was not flattering to the practices of broadcast journalism at the time, and Jennings picked up on that theme, citing present-day broadcast news operations' fluff and over-commercialization-to the point of destroying its credibility.
Murrow had noted the corrosion of broadcast news. "If radio news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when it is saleable, then I don't care what you call it-I say it isn't news."
That passage was quoted by Jennings who then added, "Murrow's contention in '58 has some resonance today." He then noted, "It doesn't behoove me to stand here and emphasize the dumbing down of so much television if I can't convince the public to shake corporate executives out of their prejudices and show that you are interested in the rest of the world. We have seen recently that public uprising can be very effective. When many thousands of people decided that some of the big corporations were going to get even bigger and perhaps do away with local broadcasters who were part of their community's fabric, the Federal Communications Commission was forced to listen, and ultimately retreat. Whatever you think of the recent uproar about so-called indecency on the airwaves, when people got riled up, things changed. A little, anyway."
Jennings concluded his remarks by telling the audience what he would do if he could:
- "I would do a weekly review of the news at a time when the public might be expected to watch-which means prime time-so they could be given a sense of context for the week ahead."
- "I would make documentaries a regular part of the prime-time schedule." "I would include regular programming from other countries-how they see us, and why."
- "I would make network news an hour every night."
- "I would make news and information programming exempt from the ratings system, which in my view has driven so much of it in the direction of ad nauseam Michael Jackson and Britney Spears and Laci Peterson. Such excess does not speak well for those news organizations which claim to have the public interest at heart."
His bold remarks approach important questions: What is the proper place of news in our society? Is it better to cater to the more sensational, less relevant issues and attract the younger, restless viewers? Or should the news go behind the froth and cover the events and developments needed to make sense of the world? Jennings fought for the latter. Driven by the journalistic principles set down by Murrow, Jennings continued to keep the standards high on ABC's World News Tonight. And he could do so because of public respect and trust. ABC didn't dare dictate that there be even more cotton candy fluff while Jennings was at the helm.
How long will that remain at ABC's World News Tonight? Perhaps not too much longer. A 2004 report by David T. Z. Mindich, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News (Oxford University Press), indicates that news is falling into disfavor among younger Americans. And not just TV news, but print news as well. And, without journalism and consequently a well-informed public, our democracy is in critical danger.
But there may still be a glimmer of hope. At the 2004 Murrow Symposium, Jennings indicated that his wife had asked the tough question "'Will I,' she said the other day, 'tell these young people at Ed Murrow's Alma Mater to go into journalism-or do something else?' The answer is, if you believe what Murrow stood for, and my father stood for, that broadcasting is a public service, then please: We need you." The remark was met with standing applause.
* Val E. Limburg, who served on the faculty of the Edward R. Murrow School of Communicatgion of Washington State University for more than 30 years, died while this article was in production. We will miss his many insights into the matters of teaching and ethics.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005(17:1),pp. 1,14.