Sunday, August 14, 2005

TV Review: Peter Jennings Reporter leaves a bad taste

On Wednesday night, ABC aired a two-hour tribute to World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings. The special got great ratings. As Kate Aurthur noted in Friday's New York Times ("Arts, Briefly"), the special "drew 9.41 million viewers."

The special, which ran commercial free, was entitled Peter Jennings Reporter.

What did we learn? That Ted Koppel's entered the most annoying and terminal stage of celebrity (when one refers to one's self in the third person). That the glamor look Andrea Mitchell tried out a few weeks back is apparently one Barbara Walters is also attempting.

Does that seem trivial? So was the special that taught us that entertainment has trumped news. Two hours of prime time, commercial free, that they could have been used (they includes the news department, this was a news special) to convey what Peter Jennings, news person, accomplished. That didn't happen.

We got snippets throughout. Including a montage, in the first hour, of 2 minutes and 17 seconds of "reporting" by Jennings (while we were treated to tag lines of "I'm here at . . .").

We'll get back to what the purpose of a special entitled Peter Jennings Reporter should have been. But let's note that despite the "quick cuts," not a great deal of thought was put into what made it into the special.

Sound harsh? Jeff Gralnick (former ABC News vice-president) said this of Jennings: "He hated people who were down trodden or stepped on." Is that what he meant? No.

He meant Jennings hated that people were down trodden or stepped on. But that's indicative of this special. On the record, Gralnick says of Jennings, "He hated people who were down trodden or stepped on." That's not a slam at Gralnick who was speaking off the top of his head and mispoke. That is a slam at those responsible for viewing and selecting the footage. (In fairness, they were under pressures other than time constraints.)

What was the key to Jennings as a reporter? Various theories are offered but the special, in total, seems to point primarily to three factors. Two are that he valued news of the world and that he had an eye for the telling detail. Or for the detail.

Here's Charlie Gibson on Jenning's coverage of a funeral, "In the midst of the special he began talking about the cemetary . . . and the significance of the trees, how many surrounded the cemetary . . ."

We weren't really sure what Gibson was babbling on about. That's partly the fault of the special on the "Reporter" that didn't present much of Jennings' reporting. But it's also true that Gibson's wandering anecdote suggests that Jennings focus on detail detracted from the actual story. (Later anecdotes, from other people, reveal that not to be the case.)

So the special's underway and we're not getting any reporting from Jennings. We're getting a bunch of anecdotes, most of which wouldn't make a gag reel. Can it get worse? Of course it can. Ted Koppel is present, remember?

Ted Koppel weighs in on the, we're sure he's sure, very important topic of looks: "It wasn't just women who looked up when Peter walked into a room and by golly they did look up . . ."

This is followed by another person who states, "I think he impressed us as having all the physical attributes, he looks well, he speaks well . . ."

Apparently that is the third most important quality to his career as a reporter because it was rare throughout the special that someone didn't feel the need to weigh in on Jennings' looks.
Since the special is entitled Peter Jennings Reporter and not Zoolander, we were confused by the constant focus on Jennings' looks.

We were also confused by ill conceived voice overs. Take, for instance, when Jennings himself is heard discussing his own looks (24 seconds) while we see black and white footage of him being made up. A special so short on demonstrating that Peter Jennings was a reporter doesn't really have 24 seconds to waste on footage of Jennings in make up. But having made the editorial decision to include the footage, shouldn't a requirement be that the footage match the voice over? To avoid being too pretty, Jennings explains that he wouldn't let them put make up under his eyes (he was proud of his 27 year-old lines). The footage, however, shows -- you know this is coming -- Jennings getting made up including, yes, under his eyes.

Two hours, without commercials, is a lot of time to fill especially when the focus is not on Peter Jennings the reporter. But that doesn't excuse the badly matched voice overs and footage which happened repeatedly. (We'll leave it with those two examples.)

We now waste further time, 10 seconds, as money is discussed. ("I make 40,000 dollars more than I did in Canada.")

When you're about to lose all hope of anything resembling the reporter showing up in this special, you get a montage -- with commentary and testimonials -- of The Millenium Broadcast. What stands out? Judging from the commentary the marathon itself -- as Diane Sawyer puts it, "going all day long . . . without a common place phrase." Charlie Gibson praises Jennings for "registering the tone." Which, considering that Jennings was shown saying such things as "It is now midnight in Russia," made us think of the scene in Bringing Up Baby when Katharine Hepburn keeps repeating, "At the tone, the time will be . . ." We're not sure that's reporting. We're not sure it wasn't. What was displayed on the TV screen didn't allow anyone to judge. (Though commentators were allowed to weigh in on "tone" and "without a common place phrase" which, apparently, are the rage in journalism.)

From there we're treated to the same clips they showed Monday on World News Tonight: twenty seconds of a montage on The Munich Olumpics. We're assured that this coverage "made him." That, "It was , in my opinion, the beginning of Peter Jennings."

Take their word for it because at 20 seconds of fast cuts and voice overs, the viewer doesn't get to see the story Jennings was reporting on.

Where are we then? Back to beauty. Mike Lee (ABC News correspondent) gushes, "Peter was born to be a dashing foreign correspondent. He walked into my hotel room wearing . . ."
Followed by another testimonial offering, "He was handsome as a movie star . . ."

Had enough? They aren't done. A third person offers, "Peter, of course, was an extremely good looking man. I always thought he looked a bit like Errol Flynn and he's tall and he was well

built . . ." Tall and well built? Are they describing (and honoring) a reporter or Julie Newmar?

When you think it can't get worse, a speaker begins with, "I think Peter, women found Peter, absolutely irresitable . . ." (Not ironically, one commentator compares him to James Bond in this segment. To Broadcast Journalism With Love?)

From there we get 20 seconds of Jennings reporting from Iran (that's four less than was used to show him being made up and discussing his looks) and then two 20 seconds bits of him reporting on Bosnia. This includes a damning interview, a rather famous one, with John Fox
who states that the State Department encouraged him to stay silent on the topic of Bosnia. The segment might be more powerful if viewers were informed of whom Fox was referring to.

In the middle of the special, we get to Jennings' own specials and this allows for a little more of Jenning's reporting (or montages of it). We get 3 minutes and 39 seconds on Cambodia, 2 minutes and 31 seconds on Israel, and 3 minutes and 3 seconds from the special on India & Pakistan. So viewers may have felt hopeful that, in the second hour, we were at last going to get a look at Peter Jennings Reporter.

Those hopes are dashed quickly as we move to Jennings on the couch being interviewed by David Letterman. It had a funny opening, Letterman is a good host. We're just not sure why it was in the special. (Or maybe someone wondered, as Letterman did, if growing up in Canada meant you came of age "peeking over the border?") The segment lasts 47 seconds. Or about a third of the time devoted to Jennings reporting from Israel. Priorities?

They're in the trash can now. Any doubts of that are dismissed as 44 seconds of political bloopers (on air) are shown (including Jennings introducing Henry Kissenger on camera as someone who served in the Reagan administration; Kissenger corrects him that it was Nixon).
That might have been "cute" for a reel shown at a Christmas party, but it doesn't really fit the title of the program.

In two hours, four people of color manage to get a word in onscreen. Al Sharpton is given the most time, 42 seconds, but conservatives shouldn't get their knickers in a wad, Antonin Scalia gets to pontificate for 47 seconds. Is any of this necessary? It's not even good cocktail chatter. Scalia, for instance, uses 47 seconds to tell that he teased Jennings about being Canadian and Jennings then informed him he was now American. (A point that the special had already established before bringing on Scalia.)

Remember how viewers were left hanging as to whom Fox was speaking of that silenced him? Well now it's time for Jennings' report on little league baseball and child abuse. The clips highlighted in the montage, 3 minutes and 31 seconds, focus on a father, Chris, and a son, Jeremy. Their last name isn't provided in this special (it was in the original reporting that Jennings did). We see Chris threaten his son and we're told about abuse (Jennings confronts Chris on camera about his threats and Chris admits he beats his son). What does that segment call for?

If Jennings were around, from what all said on camera, we think it would call for an update. That was some time ago, the baseball special. But we're not given an update because not only do viewers not get to savor Jennings' reporting, they aren't treated to any real reporting from this special. (For the record, Jeremy just completed a season playing baseball for Hagerstown Community College and Chris has a listed phone number. We're having a hard time believing ABC News couldn't track down what we did and actually get one of them on camera for some sort of update.)

We think even the most optimistic viewer must have given up any hope of a "tribute" that honored what Jennings stood for (we're told constantly what he stood for -- interest in the world and in covering the news). Apparently no one left at ABC News is too concerned with what interested Jennings.

Which is why we now are firmly in the land of fluff with 1 minute and 14 seconds on Jennings' love of the Constitution and statements such as "Jazz was one of his thriving passions" and "He loved his kids."

Let's be really clear that Jennings' work and his goals weren't honored. Think Disney is displeased by that? Think again.

Bob Iger, president of The Walt Disney Company, comes on camera to complain that too much coverage "in the last few days" has been about Jennings' career -- don't worry Iger, no one will accuse Peter Jennings Reporter of being about his career. Or of honoring it.

As the special winds down, we get Colin Powel, apparently one of our here to unknown media critics, weighing in that, unlike some, Jennings was an anchor who didn't try to hype the drama.
Take that Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw! Then Bill Clinton, a former president, is given ten seconds. (Maybe if he'd trashed the other networks' anchors, he could have had more face time?) And what would an ABC special be without Condi Rice? (Ten seconds -- making her time equivalent to that of Bill Clinton's -- is ABC suggesting she'll be the next president?)

Peter Jennings was a reporter. You don't really appreciate that by watching Peter Jennings Reporter. From Peter Jennings Reporter, you get Jennings "humanized" (or Disney-fied). You're never allowed to judge the quality or importance of Jennings' work because they only show snippets that they quickly cut away from and those are usually layered with voice overs from others. It's as though someone made a musical but every time there was a dance scene, the camera was trained elsewhere. ("Show the feet!" we'd scream at that. Here we just screamed, "Show the reporting!")

Bob Iger made it clear what he wanted -- the person, not the career. That's what he got. So why call it Peter Jennings Reporter? Why the testimonials of people who continually stressed how interested Jennings was with the world, how important what made it on to the newscasts he anchored was? Because the news department wanted one special and the bosses wanted another. The news department fought to work in what they could (they're especially proud of the sequence on tobacco -- which includes a tobacco exec raving over how fair Jennings was, showing "all sides"). Management wanted what they saw as a two hour Oprah special.

The special demonstrated the continued conflict between the news departments and the bosses who see it all as another form of entertainment. And in this round, news lost. (Though people in the news department fought very hard.) We heard grumbles about some of the news "stars" included in the special but the message came down that the network wanted their own highlighted. Some stress to us that it's a miracle that two hours of prime time television was turned over to news. We'd agree with that if we'd actually seen any news.

We didn't. Where Jennings hit hard, the special went soft focus. Who was Fox speaking of? What happened to Chris and Jeremy? Why was big tobacco present to attest to Jennings' ability to see all sides? The answer to those questions go to why this wasn't a news special.

We assume that two hours (commerical free or not) of a news program would have excited and thrilled Peter Jennings. We doubt he'd look fondly at the results of this special. As the testimonials (the good ones) noted, Jennings was able to tell a story in understandable terms. The special didn't do that. It existed in a world where a report from Iran was an important as announcing it's midnight in Moscow, a world where a story was turned into a tease without an ending. It wasn't journalism.

When they release it on DVD (yes, it's coming) we'd suggest that they change the title to A Peter Jennings Tribute. That's what it was (Kate Aurthur called it correctly). It wasn't Peter Jennings Reporter. And we'd suggest that people interested in news think long and hard on that special. Even with some strong people fighting to present a news special, they weren't able to win the battle against The Walt Disney Company. Jennings had power (which, as one testimonial acknowledged, he knew how to use). We're not sure anyone else in front of the camera at ABC does.

Cynthia McFadden spoke on camera of how Jennings really didn't want coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial on World News Tonight. In a few more months, we may wish that World News Tonight was covering topics as "important" as the O.J. Simpson trial.

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