Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings

Is anybody else strangely saddened by the death of Peter Jennings? I mean, I had no real attachment to the man, and I haven't watched the evening news in ages. At the same time, however, the big evening news shows, on CBS, NBC, and ABC have always fascinated me. I can't think of any other cultural institutions which try so hard to represent America to itself. Obviously, anybody who has interest in making money tries to appeal to as many people as possible. But the mainstream evening news broadcasts had the strange combination of mass market appeal, but also a small, vestigial, attachment to an mythology of responsibility and balance.

Clearly, both sides of that equation are hugely problematic. The idea of appealing to a mass market is always troubling. Not because there is something wrong with being popular, but because so often that appeal is actually only a rhetorical tool, and in reality is carefully constructed to include certain demographics, and exclude other demographics--usually on lines of race and class, but along other lines as well. And the myth of "responsibility" is ridiculous, not because it is a myth, but because the pleasant-sounding word "responsibility" conceals within an ideology that privileges comfort and the status quo. It wouldn't be "responsible" to discuss certain things that might cause trouble, after all. To achieve "balance" doesn't mean you are including every side of a story, it means you are including only two.

But at the same time, that makes the evening news a forum where we get to watch an image of a mythical America painted for us every night. The evening news is what the powers-that-be want us to look like, and how they want us to think. That's actually very valuable information.

Anyways, Jennings. The reason I liked him so much was that his idea of America could be rather lovely. Tom Brokaw was rural conservatism, using his Midwestern twang to promote a vision that valorized war heroes and the common volk. Dan Rather was Hollywood, trying hard to sound Texan, and therefore authentically American (obviously he has never been to Texas!), rushing around the world to provide a light-and-picture show that is either pleasantly or annoyingly distracting.

But if Brokaw and Rather were kultur, Jennings was civilisation. In his broadcasts, it was okay for an American to be urban and cosmopolitan. You didn't need to put on a rural schtick to condescend to urban sophisticates. You could be good-looking, marry well and often, live in the city, and enjoy life. Heck, you didn't even have to be American. Jennings didn't become an American citizen until 2003, and despite the obituaries that portray his citizenship ceremony as a lifetime in coming, it was clearly something that Jennings had put off as long as he could.

With Jennings gone, the story is that the tradition of authoritative evening news broadcasts is gone. I think that is a good thing. But I miss Peter Jennings.

1 comment:

Kelsey said...

I miss Peter Jennings as well. When I was younger, I think I conflated him with my image of Supreme Court justices: just totally imperturbable, unresponsive to politics, just looking for the truth. Then I grew up and got all pomo, but still, it was a really nice thing to imagine him as some kind of great untouchable.