LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles--"Peter Jennings Reporting: From the Heart of Harlem" is neither first-rate Jennings nor first-rate reporting.
The ABC news special, which airs at 8 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), tries to chronicle the financial struggle this year of the Dance Theater of Harlem. It's an important struggle of considerable resonance. And ABC tells it with some sensitivity.
But, overall, the hour has the feeling of a story that didn't quite work out as planned and a storyteller huffing and puffing to try to make it into something it's not.
For those unfamiliar with the Dance Theater of Harlem, it is an African-American dance troupe that for about 20 years has been doing wonderful work onstage and quietly changing a widely held bias that black dancers are somehow less capable of ballet than white dancers.
Last year, a $2 million deficit forced the troupe to suspend operations. ABC's story tonight is mainly about the effort to raise the money and put the troupe back onstage.
That's not only a good story line, it is also a window into the black middle-class, a look at philanthropy today and an exploration of mainstream attitudes toward black aspirations in the arts.
Jennings and ABC know all that and they keep telling us they know it in tonight's report. But they fail to show any of it in a way that will light a fire in viewers' hearts and make them care. Instead of pictures and words that show, we get forced synthesis and overwriting: Jennings tries to draw lines between dots that don't connect.
The problem starts at the very top of the report when Jennings tries to link the troupe's troubles to the Persian Gulf War.
"Since we first started work on this broadcast, as we said, war in the gulf has intervened," Jennings tells viewers. "In the wake of the war, however, listening to many black Americans looking for the same commitment to their struggle as the country made to the Kuwaitis and the Saudis, we get an even stronger sense of just how determined this dance company had to be to create something from nothing."
Maybe Jennings is trying to tell us that the war-caused interruption in reporting this story is the reason for the holes in it. But all this war business seems to be coming out of left field.
Is the report worth an hour of your time tonight, though? Yes. Even second-rate Jennings is better than almost anything else in network news.
ABC picked a good story to tell and it did a pretty good job of telling it. But it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been and should have been if the ideas had been focused and the images photographed to make those ideas sing.