Media Reform in Post-Jennings Era at Disney/ABC?

"We were in Washington, D.C., now for an antiwar demonstration and Christina [Oughton] was giving us her apartment with a view of the Potomac for a few days while she stayed with her boyfriend, the TV newsman Peter Jennings…Overdinner she told Peter Jennings how beautiful Diana [Oughton]’s hair had been…

"Peter Jennings was smiling in a pinched way…The tenderloin steak I was working on–and putting on Peter’s tab–was the first meat I’d had in over a year…

"Peter and I are for peace, Christina said another time, and Diane challenged her.

"You can’t say I’m for peace and then not do anything. You have to summon something–strength, courage–and get out there…"

Yet despite his apparent 1967 involvement with Diana Oughton’s sister, U.S. antiwar movement activists were never particularly welcome on Jennings‘ television news show. During the over two decades that he was the anchor of Disney/ABC’s World News Tonight, there was little access to his daily evening TV news show given to either U.S. antiwar Movement activists, African-American radicals, U.S. radical feminists or anti-corporate U.S. activists and media critics. How many times, for instance, were viewers of Disney/ABC’s World News Tonight allowed to see any excerpts from the antiwar lectures of U.S. dissidents like Noam Chomsky, during the 20-plus years that Jennings anchored the show?

As long ago as the 1980s, ABC News was accused of operating in a racist and sexist way. Prior to dying of AIDS in 1988, a U.S. citizen who was briefly allowed by ABC News to be a co-anchor of World News Tonight–Max Robinson–had, for instance, accused then-ABC News/ABC Sports Head Roone Arledge of running the show in a racist fashion. As The House That Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News by Marc Gunther noted in the early 1990s:

"…[Max] Robinson…argued that waiting in line behind [former ABC News co-anchor Frank] Reynolds each night to have his say amounted to being forced to the back of the bus. Reynolds thought that was ludicrous and…Robinson lashed out, calling him a bigot.

"Max was convinced that everyone was screwing him, which was partially true, said one insider.

"Arledge quickly grew tired of Robinson and his complaints…

"Robinson…came to believe that racism was holding him back.

"His feelings exploded into view at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts…in Feb. 1981…

"Remembering the day the [U.S.] hostages [at the U.S. embassy in Iran] were released…Robinson charged that he had been excluded from ABC’s coverage because he was Black.

"Arledge summoned Robinson to his office at ABC Sports…Arledge…told his anchorman that he had no business criticizing ABC in public.

"…When Robinson spoke of his troubles he was contemptuous not only of Reynolds but also of Arledge and Jennings, whom he referred to as `Roone Arledge’s favorite child.’"

The same book also described what happened at a May 9, 1985 meeting between then-ABC News Head Roone Arledge and his stable of women employees:

"[ABC News Correspondent Carol] Simpson informed Arledge that women producers and correspondents…had gathered information on the status of women in the division…Simpson passed out evidence…Women made up 18 percent of the correspondents–16 of 90–but contributed just 9 percent of the spots on World News Tonight…

"`We don’t have women making any of the news decisions,’ Simpson said. `We don’t have women who are overseas. We have no bureau chiefs who are female. We have no senior producers–much less executive producers–who are women…

"`…All the news we present to our viewers is determined and decided by upper-class, middle-aged white men…’"

According to The House That Roone Built book, "a few women wanted to take ABC to court" and "Kathy Bonk, an organization lawyer with the National Organization for Women [NOW] told the group she thought they had a strong case of sex discrimination."

The victims of media racism, sexism and classism in the United States are often told that they are denied equal employment opportunities in the U.S. media world because they "lack the required academic credentials." Yet Peter Jennings, ironically, was hired by ABC News to be its anchor for many years–despite his lack of a university B.A. degree. As the 1990s book Anchors: Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and the Evening News by Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg revealed:

"…Whenever academics came up in conversation, he [Jennings] tried to change the subject. `I suppressed it,’ he recalled. `I didn’t admit it for a very long time.’ Actually, he used to say that he attended Carleton University in Ottawa…He had in fact gone to Carleton’s night school for a couple of weeks…`Ohhh!’ he told one journalist, `I was desperately embarrassed about it for almost 20 years. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.’"

What Peter Jennings lacked in academic credentials, however, he made up for in Canadian Establishment mass media ties. As the Anchors book noted:

"Any story about Peter Jennings, journalist, must begin with his father Charles, for the younger Jennings…inherited his father’s profession. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBS] was established in the mid-1930s…Charles Jennings became its first major voice, the voice of Canada…"

During the 1940s, Peter Jennings’ father became the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s head of all programming for both radio and TV and he held this position for many years.

The Toronto-born Peter Jennings was also Canadian Establishment-connected on his mother’s side. According to the Anchors book, Jennings’ "mother’s side was society" and "they were, after all, among the original investors in Massey Harris, now Massey-Ferguson, an agricultural machinery business that numbered among Canada’s biggest firm."

Jennings was not the only member of his family to follow his father into the world of Establishment mass media broadcasting. His sister, Sarah Jennings became a "prominent cultural correspondent" for CBC radio, according to Anchors.

One reason Jennings may have chosen to deny U.S. anti-corporate activists and U.S. proponents of economic democratization much daily coverage on his World News Tonight show during his years as the anchor was because he was apparently paid a hefty salary. As The House That Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News book revealed, under the terms of Jennings‘ 1992 contract with ABC News, Jennings was to be paid $35 million between 1992 and 1997, although "not a word of the deal leaked to the press."

It will be interesting to see if the Disney/ABC World News Tonight‘s daily coverage of the U.S. antiwar movement, African-American radicals, U.S. radical feminism and U.S. anti-corporate activism improves in the post-Jennings era. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the U.S. media monopoly conglomerates to reform themselves.

Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based U.S. anti-war Movement writer-activist.