'New Civil War' takes high ground on abortion issue


November 01, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Peter Jennings has a special tonight on the politics of abortion. And the ABC anchorman says making the special has taught him firsthand what the effects of those politics can be.

"The New Civil War," the one-hour special airing at 10 p.m. on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), is going to run with less than two-thirds the usual advertising load, according to ABC officials. And a forum on abortion, scheduled for 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., will run without any advertisements at all.

The network could find no sponsors for the discussion of abortion, which Jennings will also host. In fact, viewers will be shown ABC's national sales manager on the phone trying unsuccessfully to sell the show.

Jennings said in a telephone interview yesterday that he's of two minds about the lack of advertisers for his prime-time and late-night specials.

"On the one hand," the top-rated anchorman said, "I'm very pleased that my news management never batted an eye at the advertiser situation." On the other hand, he said, he was disappointed that "sponsors are running away from it."

When asked if he thought groups on either side of the abortion tTC issue had intimidated potential sponsors, Jennings said, "Did you say intimidated? They've scared the bejesus out of them. . . . Is that [kind of pressure] part of the politics of abortion? Absolutely."

"The New Civil War," tonight's prime-time documentary, is part of the "Peter Jennings Reporting" series, which has already distinguished itself with smart and aggressive specials on guns and on Cambodia. Tonight's show deserves high marks for not taking the easy and sensationalistic track of reducing the abortion issue to emotionally charged pictures of angry partisans carrying placards and shouting at each other.

Instead the report takes the higher ground of trying to explain how this highly divisive issue affects the American political process. Specifically, Jennings and company look at the role the issue of abortion is playing in races in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Southern California, Florida and elsewhere. They do a nice job of letting the camera insinuate itself to the point where the pictures effortlessly carry the narrative.

"Listen, I think some people put abortion on the air," Jennings said, "because they think that the shouting and the screaming and the saliva make for good television. . . . But because it is an issue which is so emotional, I think the paramount contribution we can make as journalists is to make the dialogue not just meaningful but civilized."

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