Peter Jennings and America

I’m a little confused.

I watched the first half of ABC’s 2-hour special about Peter Jennings tonight. It was an incredible program. Among other things, I saw how Jennings exposed the US State Department ordering its employees to lie by claiming there were not concentration camps in Bosnia, helped expose how the United States government was illegally arming the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and how he made sure to show the Arab/Palestinian viewpoint (contrary to US wishes) in his reporting from the middle east. He had other run-ins with official corruption or, at the very least, misleading actions.

Jennings lived and worked in the United States for years — decades, even — as a Canadian citizen. Just a few years ago (2003, I think), he became an American citizen.

What was it that he saw in the United States and its government that made him change his mind? And why did it take him so long?

I’m often cynical about our government. Just this week we learn how the federal government is squandering our tax money with pork-barrel spending in the highway bill. The number of times that government officials have lied and misled the American people and the world, and even violated American law, is staggering. And it has happened with people from both parties.

I believe that this country has never really lived up to the great dream embodied in the Declaration of Independence. We have, over the course of our history, systematically and intentionally deprived entire groups of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Native Americans, blacks, poor people, Japanese, women, conscientious objectors to war, Germans, and the list goes on. When I hear our presidents talking about how the United States has always been a land of freedom, I cringe.

What is it that made Peter Jennings want to be a part of it? What is it that I’m missing? And why did it take him so long to arrive at the conclusion he eventually did?

We can, of course, look to a great many people across the globe that have less freedom than we do, and be grateful for the rights and privileges we enjoy. But Canadians don’t likely rank among those that are stifled by authoritarian regimes.

7 thoughts on “Peter Jennings and America

  1. Hi, Saw your post on planet debian, and thought I’d reply. I agree with a lot of what you said above, but to try and perhaps answer your question. Look to 2 points from the special.. 1. He always carried a copy of the US Constitution with him in his pocket. He was enthralled with the fact that a 16 page document could be a basis for a country. And 2. the scene in the special on 9/11 where the workers and congress was on the steps of the capital singing America the Beautiful (or another patriotic song), as cheesy as that is now, I think the response of the people to the events of 9/11 was what finally did it.

    anyway just some thoughts from a stranger.

    1. Say what you will about the US and all its problems, but we still have more freedom of speech than almost any other country, including Canada and European countries. Perhaps that was something he, as a journalist, valued?

      Or perhaps that had nothing to do with it. I really don’t know. Just an idea.

    2. … but part of this is why I’m confused ;-)

      You’re right that Jennings found the reaction to 9/11 inspirational. I found it to be more depressing. The US government treated it as an excuse to make one of the largest power grabs in history for the FBI and related agencies, and used it as an excuse for all sorts of actions. It is also sparked one of the most egregious rollbacks of civil rights I can think of. I guess the Japanese were treated worse, and Lincoln rolled things back farther during the Civil War, but still. The fact that our government is still reactionary, discriminating against young Arab men, bothers me as well.

      I get nervous whenever politicians use patriotic rhetoric, because it seems to be usually a way to hide something, or to cut off dissent.

      I found the bit about the Constitution to be very interesting as well. It is an impressive work, especially considering the bill of rights as well. Does Jennings believe that the system of checks and balances works? I’m not certain I have the faith in it that middle-school textbooks do.

      All the comments about communities pulling together are interesting too. There is a great diversity in the USA. Some communities have been tight-knit for years, and some probably never will be. I have the privilege of living in one of the more “close” communities, but I don’t really know anyone that felt any particularly stronger connection to the tragedies in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington than to, say, victims of genocide in Bosnia and Africa.

      We mourn, and ought to seek to help, victims of oppression everywhere. Because they are human, not because of their nationality.

  2. I have completely ignored the so called American News for the last 2-3 years now. I just cannot stand the “quality” of “news” and am not particularly interested in what Britney Spears had for breakfast! I wish the US would live up to their image of the “land of the free” and step down from this egocentrical podium our goverment has built so that the entire world can see. The other day someone commented in my blog, stating: “Go back to your own country. if you hate this one so much.”

    This guy cannot comprehend the difference between indiference from true love for one’s nation. Unfortunately, it is for this type of people that our media gladly serves!

    For that guy who told me to go “home”: I’m here to stay!

    Og B. Maciel

    .NET / Oracle Developer by day
    Linux Evangelist by night

    Linux Registered User 286200

    1. I’m glad you mentioned that. I have received that sort of comment before as well.

      I to this day am extremely annoyed at people that bitterly defend the absolute perfection of the United States and its government, and accuse anyone that points out faults of being somehow scum.

      To me, progress is not possible unless faults are acknowledged first.

      Today, NPR’s Day to Day program had a segment on the Watts riots in LA. While one can hardly condone the violence that took place, one thing those riots did do was raise awareness of the plight of people in those situations and the corruption of police and other government officials. It was the first step towards improving things, a process which regrettably isn’t finished.

      Same goes for the woman protesting outside Bush’s ranch. Republicans are starting to call her disloyal, a traitor, etc. Please. She is trying to improve her country and make its citizens safer, and doing it in spite of these attacks from the rich and powerful. I know of little more patriotic than that.

  3. I was only recently introduced to your blog, thanks to Joe’s link to your excellent SIP article. It’s a nice site with sincere views; I’ll be adding you to my Bloglines lineup.

    Anyway I wanted to post a slightly apologist response to your thoughts re: Jennings and America. I’m glad you mentioned our Declaration and the fact that it’s a promise we’ve broken at times. These are black marks on our history, no doubt.

    We are human beings after all, and we therefor have certain frailties baked in. Sometimes we become angry, or scared, or selfish, and during these times we forget our nobler selves, returning to our baser instincts. In these times there are always the few who point to that famous Declaration and ask ‘but what of the Promise?’ … and those few are largely ignored.

    But. Usually the times change again; we return to center, slowly we realize our better natures and we do what we can to make good on the broken Promise. As much as realistically possible, we have redressed our sins against the blacks, the Japanese, the Germans, and the other groups on your list. It’s not always possible to go back and fix the harms against individuals injured during our baser moments, but we don’t hold longterm grudges against those groups, and eventually they have all ended up with the same rights and possibilities enjoyed by our elites.

    What’s more, America sorrows over the indignities it foisted on others during its times of crudeness. We acknowledge that these were mistakes and we hope we will not make them again. We probably will – but it won’t be for the lack of trying not to.

    We are human. We (mostly) try to be better than that. We’ve broken the Promise, but we’d prefer we hadn’t, and we’ve never rescinded it, and we keep teaching it to our children in the hope they will do an even better job of keeping it. It’s hard to be a saint, but we haven’t stopped trying. And in a way I think that’s the promise of America.

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