The news of ABC anchor Peter Jennings’s death omitted some important detail and context — things he was said to be fanatical about.

I’m thinking especially of 9/11. There’s been comment on what a rock he was that day. But he was also TV’s most critical observer: As George W. Bush flew from place to place, he said, “You cannot have the President be seen to be running around the country.” He wasn’t just querulous. He seemed irritated: “The country looks to the President on occasions like this to be reassuring to the nation. Some presidents do it well, some presidents don’t.”

To evaluate this, I think you must go back to that day, and not the mould it was cast in via later events and retellings. George Bush’s behaviour was peculiar. He sat and read to kids in a school, even after being told of the attacks. Then he made a statement in which he promised to “hunt down and to find those folks” — a stunning use of the term, folks. Some reporters with him said he appeared bewildered. What’s remarkable is not that anyone would look askance at this performance, though only Peter Jennings seemed to, but that the President’s team could so completely recoup his image afterward.

To do that the White House had to undermine potential critics, perhaps especially Peter Jennings. There were direct complaints, and virtual proxies like Rush Limbaugh, who assailed “this fine son of Canada” for “insulting comments.” (He apologized later.) Attacks on Canadians as leftists and poor allies — or worse — became common in rightwing U.S. media.

This is the context in which to note Peter Jennings’s acquisition two years ago, of dual U.S. citizenship. It’s striking. He was the most foreign-oriented U.S. news superstar, his show was called World News Tonight, yet for decades he presented a Canadian passport in every hot spot he covered. It’s been said he took citizenship for his kids, but they are already American, and grown. I have no doubt he loved the U.S., as has also been said. Most of us who lived there at any length (I spent 10 years) retain a deep affection for the place. But he didn’t make the legal move till two years ago. It seems hard to imagine it was not due to post-9/11 pressures.

He was no leftist. Years ago, he co-hosted an ABC special on U.S. foreign policy which made the silly claim that, unique among great powers, the U.S. alone is motivated by noble ideals. (All empires say that: The British had their white man’s burden; France, its mission civilisatrice). No leftist would say such a thing. But he was a Canadian, and not an American.

It showed most in his view of commercialization. “The most difficult thing that ever happened to us in TV,” he said, “was that we made money.” That is especially so for the news. But down there, news is part of broadcasting, and broadcasting is a business. What has to be justified in the U.S. is non-commercial news and broadcasting.

Canada has another model: public broadcasting. Personally, I’ve always been gobsmacked that the news can have sponsors — because the news is often about those sponsors! Oil companies bring you the news about oil prices. Arms companies like GE bring you the news about wars, on a network, NBC, that they own! The first big network news show in the U.S. was The Camel Caravan, sponsored by a cigarette maker. For years, the news on the link between smoking and lung cancer, from which Peter Jennings died, was either suppressed, or distorted by “balancing” statements from tobacco firms. Peter Jennings apparently quit smoking 20 years ago, then took it up for a while again after 9/11, under whatever stresses, we don’t know.

He’d been facing other commercial pressures, too. Network news was losing viewers. The other anchors were being replaced by younger, blander faces. He was sent on the road — not to Beirut but to middle America, to drum up an audience. This is the killer contradiction in U.S. journalism: It’s not about left- or right-wing bias, and it’s not about sensationalism versus serious news — though Peter Jennings went to his grave proud of the fact that the Laci Peterson murder had never been mentioned on World News Tonight.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.