Peter Jennings and our current state of civility

Five and a half years have passed since Peter Jennings, the longtime ABC anchor and reporter (as he preferred to be known) died of lung cancer.

By most measures, that’s not a long time, but it seems long, oh so very long, to those, like me, who miss him terribly. This week, Peter will be named to the Academy of Television Arts and Science’s Hall of Fame (what took so long?), an appropriate, if unintended piece of timing when you consider how much talk there has been recently about the need for the kind of reasonable, earnest and intelligent discourse that he epitomized with his work.

Peter and I were friends and colleagues – we wrote two best-selling books together and, along with plenty of others, produced two mammoth ABC television series based on those books: one, a 22-hour history of the twentieth century called, simply,  “The Century,” the other a Tocqueville-style journey through the country that we achingly titled “In Search of America.” When Peter died, two other projects he and I had conceived departed with him: one on the Constitution, which, while a native Canadian, he had grown to admire, and one – unusually personal for him – that was, presciently, a “call to civility.” As it turns out, the two were born of a common instinct.

Civility

The word “civility” has become trite in recent weeks, the victim of the sort of get-on-the-bandwagon journalism that Peter loathed. But this was long before Obama and the “birthers,” long before Sarah Palin and Speaker Pelosi, long before a Congressman was heard shouting “liar” at a president delivering his “State of the Union” speech in the chamber of the House of Representatives and long before a murderous rampage prompted people to wonder if the verbal fisticuffs of political partisans could be blamed for tipping the bloodlust of the deranged. Peter enjoyed a good scrap as much as anyone, yet even back then he had come to think that the public dialogue, the daily conversation, was turning regrettably raw.

The Peter Jenngings Project

Journalists: sign up for the Project, here at the Center, to learn more about incorporating the Constitution into your work.

There was, and is, an obvious retort to this civility plea and it was one that both interested and amused Peter, mostly for its exceptionally American flavor. If our day’s dialogue is raw, what do we call that of the aptly exalted founding generation? What of John Adams, who once described Tom Paine as the “mongrel offspring of a wild boar and a bitch wolf” or Andy Jackson who called Henry Clay the “the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of God”?

For that matter, what do we make then of the brutal politics of Reconstruction? Think “talk radio” is the scourge of our time? Go back and listen to the anti FDR, anti-Semitic rants from Father Charles Coughlin – the so-called “radio priest” — who garnered an audience of 16 million (roughly 40 million by today’s standards) in the 1930s. Our day did not invent the political insult; indeed, some claim it to be the very badge of democracy.

Yet, as Peter and I discussed, if this kind of screed is as American as the First Amendment, then so is its opposite: the Constitution being not only not long a document of individual rights but of compromise as well, of my right balanced with yours, of an elastic republic, built for forbearance. We Americans get in trouble when we forsake one side of our identity for the other. In fact, we are both.

The passion with which we believe in our own closely-held ideals, the risks that we take defending and achieving those ideals

As a young reporter (his first assignments were to cover the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s) Peter had a decided skepticism about the “American way,” one colored, no doubt, by the Canadian’s traditional insecurity towards his bigger, louder, and brasher neighbor, but also by his own shock at the racial animosity he witnessed while reporting from the American South.

Peter Jennings: Internationalist.

He became, for the bulk of his career, an unabashed internationalist, associated in the American television viewers’ minds more for reports from the Middle East and London, than Peoria or Birmingham. But what turned out to be the last chapter of his life belonged to America. He had underestimated us, he once told me — the passion with which we believe in our own closely-held ideals, the risks that we take defending and achieving those ideals. Perhaps because he had come to see his life in similar terms, he developed a deep appreciation for Americans’ changeable nature.

Back in 1987, after sitting for an interview with Peter, the retired Chief Justice Warren Burger gave him a breast-pocket edition of the Constitution. Their conversation was part of a special program on the document’s bicentennial that Peter was then preparing, but I doubt that even Burger would have guessed then the impact that this small gift would have upon the Ottawa-native.

Two decades later, a bit dog-eared and discolored, the same copy accompanied Peter Jennings to the Jacob Javits federal building in New York City where, quietly, along with dozens of other immigrants, he became an American citizen. I can say with certainty that no professional achievement – and he had many – made him prouder than this very personal one.

A few weeks after the Television Academy honors Peter, a group of mid-career journalists will meet in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center in what will be the fifth annual “Peter Jennings Project for Journalists and the Constitution,” a venture aimed at bringing a deeper constitutional awareness to the nation’s front pages and the reporters who produce them. The “project” – a very “Peter word” for the way that it favors action and dynamism over something more ponderous like “institute” – has produced roughly 150 Jennings Fellows, seeding the elements of constitutional dialogue – civil dialogue — into journalism produced in all media across dozens of countries. Legacy is another over-worked word, but it is appropriate here. Even in death, Peter Jennings, American, continues to have an impact on his adopted country.

A longtime journalist for Time and ABC News, Todd Brewster is now the director of the Center for Oral History at West Point and project director of the Peter Jennings Project.

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