The 1987 film "Broadcast News" played on the usual caricature of the network anchorman, all style and no substance, all calm and reassuring presence and not much candlepower upstairs to muddle the image. But William Hurt's blow-dried teleprompter robot caricature is just that - a caricature. In reality, the network anchormen wield enormous power in deciding what will be reported to the nation, in what order, and with what inflection.
That's not to say that anchormen are necessarily brilliant. In fact, they're most dangerous when they think they're so much smarter than everyone else. But their attitudes toward current events need to be taken very seriously. For every action of our nation's politicians, the anchors can put into motion an equal and opposite reaction.
Peter Jennings recently put his mind on display in a rare appearance on the "Late Show" with David Letterman to promote ABC's primetime New Year's Eve coverage. He began by discussing time spent in Boulder, Colorado with kids putting on a high-school production of the moth-eaten '60s musical "Hair." In that knee-jerk Manhattanite patter, Jennings announced it was a "very white, suburban neighborhood, mostly Republican kids, I thought." Hold it right there. Jennings is sitting in one of the most liberal cities in the West, with kids putting on a show glorifying the heyday of free sex and drugs - and they're all easily tagged as ... Republicans? Oh, well. Let's move on.
Jennings tried to echo the national feeling that President Bush and Mayor Giuliani have done a great job in rallying the country in very troubled times, but these "Republican" kids must have been a little too red, white, and blue for his tastes. "You know, there are many definitions of patriotism, there's confusion between patriotism and nationalism ... I also think it's very important for us to respect the differences that exist in the country. I think that's especially true on the issue of patriotism."
In Peter's world, "patriotism" is a laudable national spirit of unity, but "nationalism" is that disturbing notion that somehow America leads the world in something; that it's freer, or richer, or more compassionate than other countries. He's most alarmed by the notion that some Americans think they might love their country and what it stands for more than other citizens.
Sorry, Mr. Jennings, but this writer has no intention of "respecting the differences that exist" when those differences are affronts to my values. I have no "respect" for those who celebrate what happened on September 11 (yes, they do exist). I have no "respect" for the opinion that no one should say the Pledge of Allegiance in a public school. People are free to speak nonsense, but we are also free to call it nonsense, and I don't respect nonsense.
Besides, what respect does Mr. Jennings show conservatives?
From his perch above the unthinking masses, the ABC powerhouse thinks most Americans haven't focused on the complex diplomatic issues that lie ahead: "It isn't just about campaigning against terrorism around the world. That's just too simple. There are a lot of root causes for dissatisfaction around the world and I think for the country to exercise real global leadership, when globalization in itself is kind of complicated. It's not just American business or selling American culture around the world."
It's at this juncture in the Letterman interview that you begin to suspect that when Jennings is afraid of the jingoistic wave of "nationalism" sweeping the country, he's worried about it because the ridiculed leftist minority viewpoints are, well, his own viewpoints. It's one thing to report that some Middle East rabble believe America is the source of their problems, but quite another to suggest that there are "root causes" to September 11, and that America needs to take its mass murder as some sort of twisted invitation to a rap session, where we can soothe the angry Arabs by apologizing for all our depredations, instead of simply finding our attackers and pulverizing them.
Despite his apologies in 1994 for comparing the voters who checked their ballots for a Republican landslide to a crowd of angry, incontinent two-year-old brats, Jennings still has contempt for the American public. He ended his little Letterman lecture with the thought: "I think it's a very big challenge for a leader to get us all engaged in that [diplomacy] because, you know, Americans are pretty insular people for the most part."
As Bernard Goldberg has so effectively noted, some of the most insular people in the country are anchormen who think the rest of America is too boorish and pigheaded to be tolerated. If Peter Jennings is going hunting for insular Americans, he need only go to work in the morning.