Thursday, August 11, 2005 | In the morning, I like NBC’s “Today” show.
For the evening news, I went with CBS until Dan Rather’s production team (which includes him) messed up and he left. Now I am shifting to NBC and Brian Williams.
Why? Same reason I brush with Crest, dress with Jockey and drink with J&B. A deep, mysterious affiliation the marketing professionals call “branding.”
Like most people, I never paid any attention to Peter Jennings. Only 25 million people, about 8.5 percent of the United States population, watch the ABC, NBC and CBS evening news shows combined. If eight million of that total watched the ABC evening news, that means 2.6 percent of Americans were fans of Peter Jennings. The other 97.4 percent paid him no attention.
Now he has died, and the obituaries, eulogies from Brokaw, Rather and Walters, two-hour specials and full-page ads of recognition and condolences fill a huge amount of media space. And I, no fan of Peter Jennings, read them, and listen to them, and I mourn the man.
Or, more precisely, I mourn what he represents. I am sure he was an honorable, respectable, likeable man, to be missed for his humanity. But it’s like Lucile Ball. When she died, I didn’t mourn her. I mourned what she meant to me.
It would help explain the reaction to his death if we could say that people who were otherwise neutral about Peter Jennings now are mourning what he meant to them. As a member of that group, I can say that I am mourning the loss of a professional. Peter Jennings was one of the top four names in American journalism. Cronkite, Rather, Brokaw, Jennings.
You don’t get that good without being that good. It means a lot to people, when somebody is that good, whether it’s Dan Marino, Luciano Pavarotti, J.K. Rowling, Eric Clapton, Frank Lloyd Wright or Albert Einstein. Because of dedication, work, native and acquired skill, loyalty and love, Peter Jennings became a ranking professional in his line of work.
In The New York Times Book Review two weeks ago, the noted judge, economist and educator Richard A. Posner wrote a long summary of the media, which began:
“The conventional news media are embattled. Attacked by both left and right in book after book, rocked by scandals, challenged by upstart bloggers, they have become a focus of controversy and concern. Their audience is in decline, their credibility with the public in shreds.”
Among these attackers and challengers, who don’t call it “conventional media,” but “mainstream media” or “MSM,” it is popular to wonder aloud, as a device to demean the profession, who decides who is a journalist. Are they licensed? Commissioned? Accredited? Even graduated?
The answer is simple. People decide who is a journalist. People created and bestowed upon journalism the principles, definitions and tools with which journalists work, and if a person in the newsgathering business uses those tools conscientiously and well, then the people will anoint him a journalist.
Peter Jennings was a journalist, one of the top four names on the news side of MSM. It is not a good time to lose (literally) one of the anchors (literally) of the embattled MSM. If a critic wants an answer to the question “what make a professional journalist?” he needs only to look at Peter Jennings.
That’s why his death is such a big story. Is he the last of the MSM anchors? Is it not only his passing, but the passing of an era, the last milestone in the decline and fall of mainstream media?
Well, no, as long as there are mainstream people around to have a say about it. Posner cited statistics saying that “14 percent of Americans describe themselves as liberals, and 26 percent as conservatives.” Not even all of those will be so far left or right of the mainstream not to participate in it, which means there is a steady market out there, of 60 or more percent of all Americans who support, or even insist on, professional, objective and balanced information gathering and dissemination, or what we call “news.”
They possess the values and principles and accrediting power, and those in mainstream media who use those values and principles well will be the new journalists, some of them becoming as valued as Peter Jennings. After writing 10,000 words on the subject, Posner arrived at his last paragraph, which read:
“So when all the pluses and minuses of the impact of technological and economic change on the news media are toted up and compared, maybe there isn’t much to fret about.”
I can hear Peter Jennings, in his measured, erudite way, saying the same thing.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at