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Minding Our Business


Worldly Wise: Reflections on Peter Jennings and the future of international reporting

Peter JenningsPeter Jennings had two bad habits: he would bum cigarettes and he would steal ledes. One was his weakness and led to his death and journalism’s loss. The other reflected on his strength as a journalist.

I write this as a colleague and friend who worked with Peter Jennings at ABC in the late 1970s. Peter was based in London at the time. I was ABC’s correspondent and bureau chief in Moscow and later in Bonn, Germany.

Peter tried off and on to kick his smoking habit, succeeding for a long stretch before 9/11 when, by his admission, he fell back into the habit. Even in the off periods, he had a tendency to bum cigarettes. I’m a non-smoker, but I recall his tactic. He’d find a target of opportunity and explain that he’d stopped buying, but might he have one cigarette…and, perhaps, a second for after lunch.

Sort of like a journalist asking an extra question to tuck away for tomorrow’s story.

Peter was almost as smooth when it came to his colleague’s best lines. As ABC’s London-based anchor, he would call or telex Moscow—e-mail and the Internet were more than a few years off—and strongly suggest that he liked the lede line I’d crafted and wanted to use that to introduce my report. Could I write a new opening, so he could have mine.

Typically, my response was, “Gee, I’m sorry Peter. But we had to ship the film on the early flight. The open is already tracked and integral to the story. You’ll come up with something, I’m sure.” Note we were still shooting on film and did not use very expensive satellites very often in those days.

I enjoyed these jousts with Peter. I saw in them recognition of the stories I was doing and Peter’s love of international news.

This was the time when ABC News President Roone Arledge created the tri-anchor—Peter in London, Frank Reynolds in Washington and Max Robinson in Chicago. The notion was each had an area of expertise—government and politics for Frank, national news for Max and international news for Peter. The format created some awkward handoffs: “I’m Frank Reynolds in Washington…I’m Max Robinson in Chicago…I’m Peter Jennings in London…now, back to Frank….”

The foreign correspondents would not have changed it. The format may have dictated an artificial balance, but we had a strong advocate in Peter for more of our stories. On July 10, 1978, the tri-anchor format debuted and the top story was my report on the ongoing dissident trials in the Soviet Union.

By contrast, consider how little “news from overseas,” as Peter would phrase it, you see on the networks now. There’s the almost daily terrorist bomb blast in Iraq, the occasional tsunami-like tragedy and little else.

ABC, CBS and NBC have largely abdicated world news coverage. Too often what they air is an assemblage of on-scene footage narrated by a disembodied voice in a London studio. If the sign-off doesn’t say where, you can be sure the reporter’s not there. The Russians, resorting to their old Cold War tactics, have given ABC the boot after a recent broadcast about Chechnya that upset the Kremlin crew. But ABC had itself scaled back the Moscow office from which I covered the Russian vastness, attempting recently to cover it with only a producer.

Former CBS chief foreign correspondent Tom Fenton’s retirement legacy to the profession is a book--Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All—that laments the decline of world news in American media.

CNN International, as it’s seen in much of the world, is where I can see my old colleagues Jill Dougherty in Moscow or Mike Chinoy in China. CNN’s domestic service often stops at the water’s edge. The two services bear scant resemblance beyond the CNN logo. Fortunately for consumers of global news, CNN, after a long hiatus, has resumed simulcasting a daily hour of the international service.

Peter Jennings’ may not be the best advocate for journalism education. He was a high school dropout who never went to j-school. Though he lamented he had not resumed his formal education, he was schooled by a world of experience, particularly as a correspondent in London and the Middle East.

Peter Jennings’ death leaves me to ask who are the new advocates for international reporting? Who’s telling us, this may be a long way from home, but pay attention because it’s important? Who’s reminding us that we live in a highly interconnected global village if our only perspective is griping about rising oil prices and cheap textile imports?

Thanks, Peter, for trying and often succeeding. Now, it’s a job we may have to take on ourselves.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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