12 August 2005

Journ-A-list[er]


Peter Jennings' life and work has touched many hearts and minds, including this blogger's. Ever since I was young, I've watched him anchor ABC's World News Tonight. I remember my daily afternoon ritual as a grade-schooler - arriving home from school, practicing piano, completing whatever "homework" I had, playing, eating dinner, watching Peter Jennings at 6.30 p.m., doing more homework, and then going to bed. I did not understand everything he said, but I remember the comfort of seeing him on every night.

Upon hearing of Jennings' death on Sunday, I was deeply saddened and chose to reflect some before I wrote an entry in his memory. So, albeit belated, here's my humble tribute to his life and legacy.

I respect and admire Jennings first and foremost as a journalist who did not shy from reporting on tough issues. It was he who exposed the fact that American government knew about the concentration camps in Bosnia, but the US instructed officials to lie about such camps because our nation had no political interest in Eastern Europe. Apparently, the US didn't have the time or money to prevent something we and the UN vowed would never happen again - a genocide. Not just a genocide anywhere (not that this should matter at all, but note that we are currently allowing one to occur in Sudan), but in Europe, where just fifty years earlier, one had just taken place. The peacekeeping operation in Bosnia was one of the UN's biggest failures (although the oil-for-food program rivals a close second). It was Peter Jennings who conducted a crucial interview after which US and UN action regarding Bosnia changed dramatically.

It was also Jennings who courageously covered the Cambodia story in the 1980s when the US was supplying money and arms (although the US vehemently denied the latter) to the non-communist resistance, which in turn, supported and be-friended the Khmer Rouge, the communist group that attempted to resurface after killing approximately 1.7 million of their fellow citizens. Jennings led a show-stopping interview with a US official in which the interviewee made an EGREGIOUS Freudian slip by saying that the US was indeed giving lethal arms to the non-communists (which in turn were going to the Khmer Rouge). The official foolishly denied any relations between the resistance and the communists, and Jennings juxtaposed that false statement with a video of Cambodian members of both sides shaking hands and conversing with each other. After this interview, Congress passed a law that forbade any more money or aid to be sent to Cambodia.

Jennings was Canadian, and as much as he exposed the US's hypocrisy regarding foreign policy, he also fell in love with the nation that welcomed him into a job as a journalist and news anchor. He admired the beauty and the freedom of a country whose morals, ideals, and laws revolve around a document easy enough to read in under thirty minutes and small enough to fit in one's pocket. In 2003, Jennings secretly became a US citizen. He was so moved that he himself began carrying around a copy of the Constitution in his own back pocket.

Jennings was brave enough to tackle America's tobacco issue head-on. He himself was a smoker, but quit when he had children. Unfortunately, the ghosts of his past followed him, as he was diagnosed with lung cancer this spring and passed away too quickly under its dark shadow. Jennings' persistent reporting on the realities of smoking and the overt marketing toward underage users resulted in significant changes in tobacco regulations.

He was a humble man, a man known to walk into rooms and instead of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, would approach and strike up conversations with the most unassuming, least famous people. He launched a charter school in Newark, NJ and not only invested in the school monetarily, but took the time to talk to the students and invest in their lives as well. At a high school graduation for older Americans who returned to school, he volunteered to hand out diplomas, and he memorized each student's name and background to personalize a congratulatory word of encouragement for each graduate. A combination of his unpretentiousness and sense of humor, Jennings stored his fourteen emmys and countless other awards in his bathroom.

He was known to go into homeless shelters late at night and hand out food. He befriended everyone. In once instance, he assuaged a volatile Arabic citizen angered at him - the man viewed Jennings as an American journalist invading his country's turf. In response, Jennings approached the man, listened to him and asked for his thoughts on the future of the Middle East. By the end of their encounter, the man was happy he spoke to Jennings.

One of his greatest talents was taking the most personal stories of regular, common people, and using them to highlight greater issues ranging from poor political policy to domestic abuse. He often did this by interviewing and speaking with children or visiting villages and communities outside of the metropolis in which a major story took place. I purchased his book, In Search of America in 2003 and am amazed by its beauty and poignancy. This read is a road-trip through the back streets of the US that testifies to Jennings' ability to feel the pulse of a diverse nation through capturing vivid snapshots and stories of its common citizens.

He saw no place for the obnoxious obsession with celebrity cases (i.e. - O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson) in World News Tonight. Not that he didn't view murder or child molestation as insignificant, but when stories like this take precedence over say, a potential nuclear war between India and Pakistan, he rightly saw the faults.

I remember Jennings during the falls of Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. More recently, it was seeing and hearing him on 9/11 that provided stabilizing force on a day of mass confusion and destabilization.

I'm ever-grateful for his amazing influence on the world of journalism, and more importantly, for using his platform to better the world.

Thank you, Peter Jennings for your incredible impact on our global community. May your legacy live on.

3 Comments:

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Graham said...

I was only in the US for two years but in that short time I grew very fond of him. He had this calm, assured sincerity that I think seperated him from the others. He was a great, great man, and it's a terrible loss.

I still can't believe he was 67, his spirit seemed so much younger.

 
At 1:16 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Hey Graham,

Yes, I completely agree. Thanks for sharing your comment!

 
At 7:43 AM, Blogger Ash Sere said...

Did you ever read "The Killing Fields"? That's a brilliant account of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge...

 

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