Peter Jennings, long-time anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, died yesterday. Granted, he hadn’t been on the air since April because of complications stemming from his treatment for lung cancer, but his death — along with the retirements of Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather as the news anchors of NBC and CBS respectively — seems to me to symbolize something bigger: the demise of the nightly television news program as an institution.
No, this isn’t an original thought; people have been saying it all day in articles on and obituaries for Jennings. But the fact of Jennings’ death led me to wonder to myself precisely when the last time I watched TV news was. I think that it was the 2004 presidential election, when my wife and I spent several hours flipping between stations (all three of the commercial broadcast networks, CNN, MSNBC, and PBS) watching the returns come in and marveling at the ways that the anchors hedged their bets in declaring state elections to be decided. Since then, I don’t think I’ve turned on the TV news at all (ESPNews doesn’t count; neither does The Daily Show, but I’ll come back to that in a minute). And before the 2004 elections? Hard to say. I know I was glued to the television during the day on 11 September 2001, and watched a lot of news for several days thereafter.
I find this odd because a) I used to watch the nightly news a lot as a kid, and b) as an academic whose focus is in international relations, I’m sort of supposed to keep abreast of current events. So where am I getting my information now that I wasn’t getting it when I was a kid?
I remember watching the TV evening news as a kid. I think I watched partially because it was about the only TV that my parents would permit after dinner, and partially from a vague sense that an informed person should know things that were happening in the world. I didn’t read the newspaper much — I think I really liked the visual images and the sounds on the TV, and even though I was always a voracious reader of other things I preferred to get my news about Stuff That Was Happening Right Now from the television. I also remember watching the news with my grandfather when he’d come to visit; I don’t remember us discussing the news, but I do remember sitting next to him and watching.
I always preferred Jennings to Rather and Brokaw. I’m not entirely sure why, but something about the way that Peter Jennings comported himself on camera seemed to signal “authoritative man of the world” in a way that I never got from the other two major networks (and remember, back then there were only three networks, and not a lot of cable, so Jennings/Brokaw/Rather just about exhausted the universe of choices. Okay, so there were also McNeill and Lehrer on PBS, but they didn’t really hold my attention as a kid). Even after I stopped watching the news regularly, when I did feel the need to watch I almost always went for ABC first, largely because I wanted to have Peter Jennings tell me what was going on.
I got hooked on CNN during the first Gulf War — you remember, CNN back before it got all Fox News-ified and silly, when it used to actually carry investigative pieces and as-it-happens bits of information instead of the “fair and balanced” debates it now seems to specialize in. In grad school, I lived in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with occasional jaunts back into the nineteenth century, and basically forsook current events whenever possible; when the Republicans took over the House after the 1994 midterm elections, I talked about it with colleagues, but I don’t remember flipping on the TV.
So what do I do now? My wife and I subscribe to the Washington Post, but I’ll admit freely that I spend most of the time reading the sports section of the paper in the morning; I’ll glance at the headlines, and if something looks particularly appealing I’ll take a closer look. I get e-mailed headlines from the New York Times and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and I try to scan them during the day when I do my usual e-mail triage; again, I’ll follow up on anything that looks really intriguing. And then there’s NPR, which I usually have on in my car when driving to and from work if either Morning Edition or All Things Considered are playing. (At other times I’ll listen to music, but I will sometimes flip on NPR at the top of the hour for the quick news update.) Sometimes people e-mail me links to news stories they think I should read, too.
Notably absent: the nightly television news.
I don’t think of blogs as sources for news; the blogosphere seems to me to be more of a place for unlimited opinion pieces. So I don’t regard looking through blogs as a way to get news, any more than talk radio is a place to get news. And The Daily Show, which I said I’d come back to? At times during the past few years, Jon Stewart and company have been the only people really questioning the governmental line on a lot of things, and some of Stewart’s questioning of guests has been (there’s no other word for it) great journalism. Of course, it’s also absurdly funny, which helps.
My point here is that the nightly news has died. I don’t think I’m atypical in no longer watching it much, and in gathering information from other (mostly online, with some print) sources; I also don’t think I’m atypical in largely abandoning “the news” in favor of looking for opinions and debates and the like. Reports on the demographic skewing of nightly news viewers — all the demographics skew towards the elderly — reinforce my impression. It is of course only an accidental coincidence that Peter Jennings died now, at a moment when the institution with which he was associated is fading away, but it’s symbolically appropriate. We no longer have a place in the media world for the Nightly News Anchor — and the last, best one just passed away.