News anchor also critic of coverage

Media: While on the air, anchor Peter Jennings questioned choices his colleagues made, wondering how they could affect viewers' opinions.

September 16, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The news media have attracted both praise and criticism for their coverage since Tuesday's terrorist strikes.

And yet, some of the most cogent running criticism comes from an unlikely source: chief ABC News anchor Peter Jennings.

Since the disaster Tuesday morning, Jennings has been on the air as the primary host of ABC's news specials for more than 13 hours a day, without commercial breaks. (NBC's Tom Brokaw, who has also been broadcasting for hours on end, has been sharing some chores with Katie Couric of the network's Today Show.)

Despite his hours, Jennings has largely maintained the collected, urbane sensibility that is his trademark. At several points, however, the live nature of his broadcasts has been evident. He sits at the anchor's desk in shirtsleeves, occasionally acknowledging that he's uncertain where the next report is coming from.

And Jennings has proved willing to question, or at least talk about, the choices of ABC colleagues on the air, steering the direction of the coverage before the viewers' very eyes.

At one point Friday morning, Jennings wondered aloud whether the tremendous emphasis placed by U.S. officials and the media on Osama bin Laden would lull Americans into thinking terrorism would stop when he is apprehended or killed. As the anchor spoke, footage showed the exiled Saudi dissident brandishing machine guns and speaking to followers.

"We've just done a classic instance of that," Jennings announced, all but shaking his head. "No offense, guys in the control room - but the instant we talk about Osama bin Laden, someone puts his picture on the monitor."

Later in the morning, ABC correspondent Lisa Stark, appearing by satellite from Seattle, explained that there are different types of so-called "black boxes" from the downed airplane cockpits that are being sought by law enforcement officials.

Jennings listened to her somewhat clinical explanation, then remarked, "It's amazing how easily we all slip into the language of disaster. I remember you talking for days on end after John F. Kennedy [Jr.]'s plane went down, about the `debris field.'"

The anchor also acknowledged on air that many viewers had called or e-mailed the network to register their dismay over its repetition of footage of the planes exploding into the World Trade Center.

"We are mindful of that," Jennings said. "We have done our best ... to be really judicious with our use of images that seriously trouble a great many people."

Said Jeffrey Schneider, an ABC vice president, "What you're seeing is Peter being extremely thoughtful, careful and cautious in his reporting, though not editorializing." New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani urged such caution Friday, saying that false reports were sending rescue workers on fruitless searches and caused needless additional anguish to the families of the missing.

On Thursday, several networks, including ABC, had reported the words of rescue workers who said they had been able to free several police officers trapped alive in the rubble of the World Trade Center. That report proved false.

"If we could all be a little more patient and verify information before we put it out, we won't raise people's hopes unnecessarily," Giuliani said.

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