Attempts to change minds with shows on prejudice and rape

April 24, 1992|By Ben Kubasik | Ben Kubasik,Newsday

New York -- Peter Jennings, ABC anchor, doesn't take kindly to the idea that he, a journalist, might be perceived as performing a teaching-preaching role normally reserved for a cleric.

This, even as Mr. Jennings prepares to advance the news business' growing preoccupation with moral and ethical issues in four hours of ABC specials on the subjects of prejudice and rape.

The three specials are: Saturday's 90-minute "Prejudice: Answering Children's Questions" (11:30 a.m. EDT); an hourlong "Peter Jennings Reporting: Men, Sex and Rape" (May 5), followed by his 90-minute "ABC News Forum" on rape.

Mr. Jennings says the topics are ongoing news. The first, he said, in an interview in his ABC News office in Manhattan, is based on continuing discrimination and the rise in bias crimes; the others, he says, stem from how "the nation has been transfixed by rape, alleged rape or sexual abuse by major personalities -- William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson, the Mets players, the Thomas-Hill hearings."

Saturday's special on prejudice will have a studio audience of young people, and call-ins from peers. Mr. Jennings said he expects "to teach some children, learn from some children and teach some adults."

To help do so, a film will show how two clean-cut young boys -- one black, one white -- are treated differently at a mall as they try to get change for a dollar, be served in a restaurant, and return handbags their mothers chose not to keep. The special also will show how prejudice can result simply by separating its audience into the blue-eyed and the brown-eyed. "We want to show," he says, "the consequences of acting out of ignorance and fear."

On the rape specials, Mr. Jennings says he wants men to be made uncomfortable "by research that supports the fact that forced sex originates in the minds of men. The opinion of every expert we interviewed is that women do not cause men to rape them -- not by what they wear or what they say or how late they stay." There were 52 percent more rapes reported last year than the previous year, he said, partly because more women are reporting them but also because rapes are increasing.

Mr. Jennings said that he "grew up believing the best thing this kind of long-form TV can do is make people think more deeply and accurately. If we do that with both these topics, we will have succeeded."

Preacher? Teacher? Journalist? Maybe all three. Paraphrasing President Kennedy, Mr. Jennings admitted that although there are laws against both prejudice and rape, "Legislation alone cannot change minds and hearts."

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