The lights of the castle have gone out. The corridors and ballrooms are silent now. The drawbridges have been drawn up and the gates are locked. A world once vibrant with the frenetic pace of life in the moment is returning to the mists of time, shrouded forever into the eerie silence of dreams.
Peter Jennings has died, and with him went the last of the world of network news. And what a world it was.
As fantastical as the fictional wizard school, Hogwarts, is to those who devour the Harry Potter books, network news was once a glorious reality of power and information for the lucky ones – those fortunate to have caught a glimpse of this astonishing empire in its prime. Most of us did, when we once turned on the evening news.
The hallways of ABC News’ Manhattan headquarters were perpetually abuzz with greatness, day and night: kings and queens, quite literally, often passed by, along with presidents, potentates and politicians, generals and spies, movie stars, saints and sinners, cowboys and Indians, princesses and madams, the earnest and the hustler, the boy next door.
There were troops of technology wizards to conjure images from afar – instantly. Newsroom chatter was forever ablaze with stories of heroes, sycophants and psychopaths. Brilliant teachers and thinkers, all with a zeal for the utmost integrity, to instruct the neophytes and flick them away to fetch coffee and doughnuts. Schemers and dreamers behind every door. Power plays abounded. Professional jealousy flared at the drop of a hat. Romances bloomed, or sputtered and died. Ambitions ran rampant, in every direction.
Great rivalries played out amongst the famous houses of ABC, CBS and NBC; money flowed, as did wine and feasting on special occasions such as the massive political conventions. Immense plans were set in motion every day. Even grander ones sprang to life when the catastrophic and the powerful rocked the world.
Pageantry was expected and achieved on a regular basis, as if with mere flourishing of wands to viewers at home. All angles covered in a blaze of cabling and satellite trucks and electronic fury. Pity the poor fool who did not learn to keep up.
Yes, network news was once a reality: perhaps an elitist and fantastic one, but a functioning American reality, and often difficult to get a foot in. But once there, it demanded everything you had to give it. And it gave back, to a greatly revered audience, everything in its remarkable, far-reaching power.
At the center at the center of such a fantastical reality lived a great news wizard who knew no rival – Peter Jennings. Jennings simply ruled ABC News. His word was first, last and never taken lightly. Reigning over a court that knew no bounds, so it seemed, there was always Jennings: larger than life, as courtly as a prince, as charming as Bill Clinton, Jennings talked and edited and courted and edited some more. He simply spun straw into gold with a flick of his pen and a nod of his lovely head. Few dared correct him. He rarely needed correcting.
Peter Jennings was a sight to behold. He knew he was good. A bit smug and self-important he seemed to his critics, those haughtily immune to his immense charm. Jennings was at his best when we were at our worst. While other network anchors lurched about from live-shot to live-shot, scene to scene with no big rhyme or reason, Peter Jennings would lure us into a state of acceptance and understanding with a seamless, flawless command of any event playing out before him. Even the strange and the unfathomable began to make sense when Jennings began to speak.
Whether it was the turning of the millennium, the chaos of 9/11, or the hell of Palestine or Salvador years ago, Jennings could sense a seam, a timeline, a common thread that bound a story together and, more importantly, bound it all back to us, the audience, in a wise and humane way.
He used his uncanny sense of himself, of human nature, to do this, and also what must have been an insatiable demand for knowledge and sheer information, to weave a flawless, poignant, believable story through so many difficult news situations – a beautiful, haunting package of events that always led right back to our own selves somehow.
So with the passing of Jennings goes network news as it used to be – a glorious, raging force that shaped the world for us. But the audience now demands a different world: one on our own fickle terms, one we can program and time and wrap-around our lives in a more user-friendly fashion.
Our reliance on a personality, on those more gifted than us perhaps, those charged with a calling and a purpose, has given way to a ruthless independence and arrogance of our own making.
There is no magical place any longer that strives for integrity and value and professionalism on our behalf. We are on our own, without benefit of the almost supernatural resources of the network, nor the network anchor.
So the hero of the evening anchor gives way to the iPod and the anonymous podcast, the TiVo and the precious, cloistered time of the individual consumer, to the Internet and the blogger, the amateur and the unprofessional.
We have thrown our own selves out of the kingdom and tossed away the key. We need no kings, no princes, and no person of special power to speak for us.
We have given ourselves over to our own devices.