Peter Jennings: Truth and Consequences

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By: Greg Mitchell

Adding my two meager cents to tributes to the late ABC anchor Peter Jennings, I will contribute only this: Ten years ago, he produced the most courageous and incisive documentary ever shown on any major network about one of the most important historical events of the 20th century.

It was a performance, however, that earned for Jennings a complaint from a leading Washington Post reporter who claimed he had acted ?with the telegenic innocence of a golden retriever in his first wading pool.?

Long before that, Jennings and I went way back, to my teenage years, in fact. Growing up just over the border from Ontario, I got to watch him on Canadian TV when I was a kid and he wasn’t much older. Naturally, I followed his career closely after that, but we never met until one day in the spring of 1995, in Washington, D.C., outside the Air & Space Museum.

At the time, he was hard at work on an ABC documentary on the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, for the 50th anniversary of the event later that year. I was with a committee of scholars and journalists who had met that day with the director the museum, who was embroiled in a front-page debate over the upcoming display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Originally, the exhibit that was to accompany the plane’s fuselage had explored the decision to drop the bomb in a probing way, but protests from veterans groups and politicians had led to a gutting of that history in favor of a no-questions-asked approach.

I’d heard that ABC was taking a hard look at the atomic bombings, and had been told that Jennings planned to interview me at some point, as I had just completed my book, ?Hiroshima in America,? with Robert Jay Lifton. Lo and behold, when I stepped outside the museum that afternoon, there was Jennings, sans camera crew, interviewing a World War II veteran (who opposed the atomic bombing) on the front steps.

After waiting for that to end, I introduced myself to Jennings — he was taller than I’d imagined, and more pale. He seemed to know that I was on his interview list, and asked me what I’d most want to talk about. He then listened to my spiel for a minute or so, cocking his head slightly to the right or left in his characteristic way, and then he was gone.

The interview never happened, but I still looked forward to his primetime, 90-minute special, which aired a few weeks later near the end of July.

The history of Hiroshima on TV is a slim, and sad one, with network specials, going back to the 1960s, inevitably downplaying criticism of the use of the bomb and emerging historical evidence that raised serious questions about Truman’s decision. Imagine my amazement when I found that Jennings’ research and narration all tilted, if anything, in the directon of the ?revisionist? thinking on the bomb. He aired interviews with leading critics of the bombing, such as Gar Alperovitz and Barton Bernstein, explored much of the new evidence, and even declared that the Enola Gay exhibit had become something of an ahistorical travesty.

The show went on to win a Peabody Award. But not everyone was happy. Veterans and others flooded the ABC switchboard with angry calls. Ken Ringle of the Washington Post (a paper which repeatedly sided with the ?ahistorical? crowd in the Enola Gay protest) called it ?an ing?nue’s stroll down the narrow tunnels of academic revisionism with only occasional intimations that larger truths may lie outside.” It was the first time, Ringle noted, that a major network had “so emphatically divorced itself from the perceptions of historians and journalists who experienced the war years firsthand.” Jennings, he wrote, walked through this difficult and complex terrain “with the telegenic innocence of a golden retriever in his first wading pool.?

A few weeks later, I called Jennings’ office a couple times, wondering how he’d responded to the hate mail and phone calls. An aide confirmed the outpouring of criticism, but said he would not comment on it at all. I guess that’s what so many are hailing this week as his grace under pressure.

Perhaps the Peabody gave him some comfort. None of the three networks devoted even a minute of primetime to the bomb this year at the 60th anniversary. But Jennings’ documentary, ?Hiroshima: Why The Bomb Was Dropped,? is still available at amazon.com and other outlets. It closes with one of Jennings’ finest moments.

Standing in front of the ultra-shiny Enola Gay, Jennings looks straight into the camera and says: “It is clear there are people who don’t want to contemplate the moral questions that are also part of the bomb’s legacy.” He criticized those who had “bullied” the museum so that “the whole story of Hiroshima is not represented here. That is not fair to history or to the rest of us.

“After all, freedom of discussion was one of the ideals Americans fought and died for.”

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