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Dear Peter Jennings,
We met every night at 6:30 for decades. Then you were gone.
My dad always watched the evening news. As a kid, I’d exhale a big disappointed sigh at the designated time, but eventually I grew up and realized life ain’t an endless game of Candyland. Pretty soon, I was sitting next to Dad in the family room with admirable regularity watching you in the anchor’s chair on ABC’s World News Tonight.
You became an imperative life metronome of sorts (I still watch the news every night). After all, this was before mobile devices and social media. You were the news. The other two of the Big Three (Tom Brokaw on NBC and Dan Rather on CBS) were fine broadcasts as well, but for Dad and me, it was you we chose to follow. Religiously.
What a strange and unbalanced relationship we had—I always wondered how that was for you. You appeared before me each night and told me things I largely believed, yet I was a complete stranger to you.
Then I fell for you in earnest one night in the late 1980s as you reported on then-Duchess Sarah Ferguson. It was the last story of the broadcast—the “human interest” segment. It featured footage of Ferguson in loud ill-advised clothing. The copy covered the media's obsession with her weight.
As the segment concluded, you folded your hands and looked straight into the camera.
“I don't think you're fat, Fergie,” you said, and, Mr. Jennings, I swear my pupils morphed into tiny hearts.
But your very finest hours came amid our county’s most fraught, those centered around the attacks America endured on September 11, 2001.
So many things stand out to me as I watch this today, starting with your sincerity. You combined consummate professionalism and deeply authentic concern hour after hour after hour. I don’t think you read from a teleprompter once in that 30-minute clip or at any point during the unimaginable aftermath of those attacks, yet you were informed and confident.
As for your viewers, we all felt awful. We all felt helpless. We didn’t know what to do, so we watched you. You were close to the action in NYC, reporting to Americans across town and across the country, and that made us all feel a little bit less in the dark. I’d say you made us feel better, but no one felt better after 911. It’s more accurate, Mr. Jennings, to say you were a comfort.
In your September 11, 2001 evening broadcast, you remarked on the value of “freelance photographers,” whose contributions made much of the unforgettable footage from that day possible. And although that was more than two decades ago, you presciently noted (at about the 7:10 mark), “A reminder of the world we live in—there’s a camera pointed by somebody almost everywhere.”
If you only knew then what all of us know now.
In 2023, your designation of “freelance photographer” encompasses anyone with a phone, which is almost everyone. What you considered to be everywhere then, is a bit different than the reality of what our cameras capture everywhere now.
Like one man nonchalantly compressing another man’s neck with his knee as the subdued man cries for mercy—until his cries stop and he dies on the pavement. Or a group of people violently breaking into the US Capitol where they gleefully destroy property, defecate, and viciously attack police.
We have learned in the past 22 years, Mr. Jennings, that regardless of how outrageous the undeniable atrocities are, if you muster enough false indignity and repeatedly tell people the horrendous acts playing out before their eyes are most certainly not atrocities, they’ll believe you.
In this alternative universe, the murderer referenced above was anything but. Instead the gatekeepers from the other side of truth will tell you that subdued man, George Floyd, expired on May 25, 2020 on account of illicit drug intake and heart disease. As for the marauders rioting at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, over on the other side of the Looking Glass, these were just a misunderstood group of normal tourists. There’s more of course, but you get the picture.
You had credibility, Mr. Jennings, largely because you and your team did your best to deliver truth. Undoubtedly some real stinkers made their way into your nightly 30-minute show over the more than 20 years you anchored World News Tonight; but deliberately, consistently, and loudly lying to your viewers? You never would have imagined such a thing, much less tolerated it. You surely cared about your reputation, but you cared about your viewers as well.
Some of your 2023 contemporaries, however, have become intoxicated with the magic sauce misinformation can render. They deliver their blistering lies with such enthusiasm, they barely taste the bitterness anymore—even when it hits them in the place they care about most: the pocketbook. And just for the record, there is plenty of straightforward evidence proving they lied knowingly. Consider the headlines supporting that assertion.
From your old network ABC: What Fox News hosts allegedly said privately versus on-air about false election fraud claims
Given the revelations in those articles, that language is, shall we say, squishy. So yes, Mr. Jennings, even the good guys are pussyfooting around the lies.
September 11, 2001 stressed you in ways we couldn’t see from the other side of our screens, eventually reigniting a smoking habit you’d given up years before. You told us about your lung cancer in April 2005 and died just a few months later.
Make no mistake, as I watched rioters attack our government on January 6, 2021, not one media professional comforted me the nuanced way you did in the days following 911. Not one.
I miss you every night, Mr. Jennings. I miss you more than I can say.
ps: Currently, the leading Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election has taken the Fifth more than 400 times in a court of law and has racked up four indictments on some 90 charges. Thus far, these realities have not impacted his campaign or popularity.
pps: We did not have a peaceful transition of power in 2021, and the vast majority of Republicans in the United States House of Representatives and Senate still—without so much as a shred of evidence of election fraud—refuse to admit their party lost the White House.
ppps: Because it bears repeating and because you understand why, Mr. Jennings, the United States of America did not have a peaceful transition of power in 2021.
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