MediaWatch: January 1991

Vol. Five No. 1

A Look at Peter's Politics

ABC's World News Tonight has finished first in the network evening news ratings ever since it surpassed CBS in 1988. At the forefront of this rise is Peter Jennings, ABC's urbane anchorman. The Canadian native's unpretentious delivery might lead viewers to consider him the least political of the three anchors.

Over the years, however, Jennings has revealed hints of the driving force behind his journalism. When self-declared Marxist muckraker I. F. Stone died in June of 1989, Jennings declared: "He generally found something useful to say...For many people, it's a rich experience to read or re-read Stone's views on America's place in the world." MediaWatch has gathered a representative collection of opinions delivered by Jennings over the past three years. These quotes demonstrate that Jennings holds liberal views on a wide range of issues and provide insights into the mind of an anchor.

Foreign Policy: From Cambodia to Cuba, Jennings has argued the case of America's enemies. On February 27, 1989, he declared that leftist students in South Korea "represent the leading edge of a more general discontent...many Koreans believe the U.S. is standing in the way of a reunified nation," ignoring the fact that U.S. forces remain in South Korea because Koreans realize the North remains a threat.

On April 3, 1989 Jennings anchored from Cuba. "Castro has delivered the most to those who had the least. And for much of the Third World, Cuba is actually a model of development," he proclaimed. Jennings ducked the human rights issue and praised Cuban society: "Education was once available only to the rich and the well connected. It is now free to all....Medical care was once for the privileged few. Today it is available to every Cuban and it is free....Health and education are the revolution's great success stories." Jennings concluded by repeating the words of a Cuban woman: "For me, [Castro] is God. I love him very much."

During the February 1990 Nicaraguan elections, Jennings put his money on the wrong horse again, predicting a Sandinista victory. On February 20 he declared: "For the Bush Administration and the Reagan Administration before it, the [ABC News/Washington Post] poll hints at a simple truth: after years of trying to get rid of the Sandinistas, there in not much to show for their efforts."

Globe-trotting Jennings took his anti-American show back to Asia in April 1990 with a prime-time special on Cambodia, From the Killing Fields. The issue was simple for Jennings: "The United States is deeply involved in Cambodia again. Cambodia is on the edge of hell again." By not backing the Communist Hun Sen regime, Jennings concluded, "The United States is in danger of being on the wrong side of history." That comment led New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman to note that the phrase "might have been borrowed from Marxist texts, [and] seems a touch dated after the anti-communist upheavals of 1989."

Picking Presidents: Which American politicians interest Jennings? Jesse Jackson, for one. Appearing on NBC's Later with Bob Costas on January 12, 1989, Jennings rated Jackson as "probably the most important Democrat that ran in the could see a man who cared, whatever else you may think about him, bringing people's attention to focus on something in a way that in my view no other politician in the country can do it." Of course, Jackson wasn't the only Democrat he found fascinating. Jennings praised Bruce Babbitt on the day he ended his 1988 campaign: "When he entered the race nearly a year ago he had the courage to say that as President he would probably have to raise taxes. And he never recovered from his courage." Presenting Jimmy Carter as Person of the Week on May 12, 1989, Jennings noted that since leaving the White House Carter "continued his life with distinction, considerable grace, and with a very strong commitment to peace and justice."

Environmentalism: Not all of Jennings' heroes are career politicians. During the Earth Day hysteria in April 1990 Jennings named Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes Person of the Week, lauding him as "the true believer whose reverence for life has always been a calling, never a fashion, who millions of Americans owe a vote of thanks."

Jennings' frequent environmental pronouncements suggest the topic is close to his heart. On May 17, 1989, for example, he called a decision to raise fuel efficiency standards as "a victory in Washington today," never mentioning that when the standards are increased the number of traffic fatalities climb. Evaluating Bush's Clean Air Bill on July 27, Jennings only wondered, "does the Bush plan do enough?"

The ABC anchor also wasn't afraid to engage in occasional hyperbole. During a September 12, 1989 Capitol to Capitol special Jennings ranted: "We are destroying the global home in which we live....We are literally in the process of choking ourselves to death." Later, Jennings asked Rep. Claudine Schneider if we could "alter our lifestyles, use more mass transit, use less electricity, recycle more, procreate less?"

Health and Welfare: Various forms of socialized medicine are also in vogue with Jennings. When Congress repealed the catastrophic insurance program on September 18, 1989, Jennings bemoaned the end of the experiment, which heavily taxed a few people and redistributed their money to a large group: "Because five million elderly people are angry, as many as 18 million others may suffer." When the American College of Physicians supported national health insurance in April 1990, Jennings declared: "Others have been saying for quite some time that what the U.S. needs is what already exists in Canada."

Jennings has used his position to lobby for federally-funded child care. The November 22, 1989 American Agenda focused on "the system which is acknowledged to be the best outside the home... The Swedish system is run and paid for by the Swedish government, something which many Americans would like to see the U.S. government do as well." When Congress considered such a program in March 1990, Jennings complained: "It leaves the issue of child care standards up to the individual states, and according to virtually every child care expert, that is a mistake."

Abortion has gotten Jennings' attention. During his November 1, 1990 special, The New Civil War, Jennings presented the entire debate through the lens of the "right to choose" side: "There are millions of us in the country who have not yet made up our minds about how much government interference in our lives there should be, either to protect a woman's ability to have an abortion, or to make it even more difficult, even illegal."

Jennings has injected his views into news stories with surprising frequency. More Americans may get their news from ABC News than from any other source, but they might do well to pay more attention to Jennings' substance than his style.