Stay curious.

Tuesday, August 9th, 2005

Peter Jennings died late Sunday evening, and I’ve never heard the word “curiosity” mentioned so many times by so many different people in an attempt to capture a person’s essence.

Stripped of all its outputs, journalism starts with curiosity. And without an outlet for that digested curiosity, you have no journalism. I went to school to become a journalist, and I find myself with the curiosity and the tools to acquire the information (thank you, o internet), but without the outlet—and no, no particular burning desire to have one, I can’t make any claims to practice journalism.

That is, unless you think this document is read worldwide.

But I was inspired by Jennings. I admired his work. I admired his attempts to get Americans to think about issues that we seem to turn away from—like health care and centuries-old cultural conflicts. He represented for me the best of what Americans could be in relations with our fellow global citizens. (Ironic, of course.) Jennings told Charlie Rose that he indeed believed to be a journalist is to be a citizen of the world, and I’d rather be a member of any global community than a cheerleader for the home team that hates its opponents. Actively participating in this internet thing feels global, even if I am communicating mostly in English to mostly fellow pasty white guys. It’s a step in the right direction. And it’s a great way to satisfy my unabated curiosity.

I got the news of Jennings’ death sometime after midnight, in further irony, not from television, but on Google News, and I was able in a matter of a few clicks, an hour or so after the announcement, to read, listen to, and watch lots of the ABC News anchor’s colleagues, peers, critics, and hangers-on mourn his loss and delineate his legacy. I read about Charlie Gibson sorrowfully but professionally making the announcement—I didn’t see it live. I watched Aaron Brown’s obituary for his colleague, but I went to to do it.

It’s interesting to me that scant little is being said about Jennings’ second incarnation as ABC anchor—his role in the tripartite successor to the Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters fiasco. Sometime in 1978, ABC Sports head-turned-news-head Roone Arledge conceived of World News Tonight—that was the first time the name was used—as a round-robin of the world, with not one but three anchors: stalwart, too-conservative-for-my-taste Frank Reynolds in Washington, urban Max Robinson in Chicago, and urbane Peter Jennings in London.

This was a tour-de-force of technology more than an innovation in content, and was ABC’s attempt to overcome the sheer gravitational force of Walter Cronkite by pulling on his ratings numbers from multiple locations. It didn’t work for most people, apparently because “a network needs a single voice”, but it did for me, because if nothing else it established a clear mandate to cover both international news and heartland-of-America news on a regular basis. Breadth of coverage is something that’s falling by the wayside (television news’s massive pile of wayside detritus is starting to block out the sun). Watching WNT in the late 70s, I was hopeful that this indeed meant all of our news didn’t have to come from white guys in New York or Washington. I knew when Jennings’ face appeared that we’d be hearing about places that were important to understand, even when I understood precious little. When the world appeared in my living room, I wanted to go there and learn more. Broadcast curiosity begats curiosity.

(It’s funny now that there’s not much trace on the internet of Robinson and Reynolds. And Reynolds, with Jules Bergman, did a great job of covering the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights for ABC. Try to find references to that, or to Bergman at all.)

Jennings, Robinson, Reynolds, Arledge are all gone now.

So you’ve read plenty about how this closes the book on the Jennings/Rather/Brokaw generation of news anchoring. Here’s hoping it isn’t an invitation for Roger Ailes to drag us further down the path to, well, wherever chapter he’s writing.