By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What Peter Jennings meant

I’m hardly the first person of my generation (I’m 49) to make the observation that I almost never watch the three major networks’ nightly newscasts. Lifestyles have changed dramatically over the past 20 to 30 years. It’s far more convenient to tune in National Public Radio while I’m commuting than to sit down and try to watch a 6:30 p.m. headline service. If there’s big news, I’ll watch CNN’s “NewsNight with Aaron Brown” at 10 p.m.

Still, Peter Jennings’s death matters, just as Tom Brokaw’s retirement mattered and – yes – just as Dan Rather’s “did he jump or was he pushed?” departure mattered. My sightings of all three tended to take place during big news events, election nights and the like. Jennings and Brokaw were very good at what they did, and I’d give Jennings the edge for a somewhat more intelligent approach. Even Rather, an unsettling presence, stood for real news values. Yet the Jennings/Brokaw/Rather troika embodied not the golden age of television news but its decline.

Network news audiences are half the size they used to be. Unlike the true giants of an earlier era, like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the Big Three of recent decades represented an early attempt by network news executives to put telegenic faces in front of the camera. Jennings flopped as a twentysomething, pretty-boy anchor, then turned himself into a real journalist. Brokaw was a veteran of “Today,” hardly a paradigm of hard-news excellence. Rather, though hardly unskilled, was best at calling attention to himself, as when he memorably snarked at Richard Nixon during a televised news conference.

What you did sense with all three of them, though, was that they had standards, and that, ultimately, they would not be a part of the more perfidious schemes their profit-obsessed corporate bosses might come up with. (Not to be overly nostalgic; they all stood by while foreign coverage was gutted, didn’t they?) Brian Williams and whoever ultimately replaces Jennings and Rather (Charlie Gibson seems to be the early favorite for Jennings’s chair) may become equally skilled journalists. But will they have the clout to resist further news cutbacks?

With NBC News in the best position of the post-troika era, having made an astoundingly smooth transition to Williams, it will be interesting to see whether the other two networks decide to move away from the nightly news model and come up with other ways to appeal to a shrinking audience. Obviously Jennings will be missed; and he’ll be missed even more if Disney decides this is the perfect opportunity to lighten up.

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  1. Anonymous

    With the future of Nightline in doubt, ABC is on the hotseat in deciding what to do with its news department. But it is a good sign that they gave Peter Jennings a two hour commercial-free sendoff in prime time on Wednesday. Hopefully this is not just a sign of respect for their lead reporter, but also it shows respect for their news department and its future.By the way, I like the RSS tags in your new blog. Now my Safari browser tells me at a glance when you have a new entry. Very convenient, and good for your bandwidth usage, too.Mark

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