Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky says that's the way it is.
"This is a program about information—more information than you can possibly imagine."—Peter Jennings, "No Place to Hide"
Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite. Peter Jennings? Don't get me wrong: I liked Peter Jennings. Of the network news anchors of the post-Cronkite era, Jennings was the only one that I always thought sounded like he really understood what he was talking about. He always struck me as a guy who might put on a jacket and beat-up old hat and actually go out into the trenches to find a story. I never felt that vibe from Brokaw or Rather. Still, I am not sure that I would really rank Jennings as "legendary," as the packaging for The Peter Jennings Collection announces.
In the wake of Jennings's untimely death in August of 2005, ABC News (oddly working through Anchor Bay and not parent company Disney) threw together half a dozen of Jennings's investigative pieces from the last few years and released them within three months of his demise. Given the limits on Jennings's time, spread across the ABC newsroom, I wonder how much he really had to investigate on many of these stories, even though they were featured on ABC under the title "Peter Jennings Reporting." Usually on these feature pieces, the individual story producers are really the people who put together each segment, bringing in the narrator (Jennings in this case) late in the process. Again, I do not want to denigrate Jennings's ability as a reporter: the guy paid his dues over the years. And he does get official writing credits on a few of these stories.
The Peter Jennings Collection seems to be a quickie project: there are no follow-ups or background materials on these stories, no biographical information on Jennings, or even subtitles or captions. The selection seems fairly arbitrary, consisting of six stories from the last few years that, while interesting, do not connect with one another. Each story runs a little over 40 minutes (an hour when you add commercials). If you believe that the media is a liberal conspiracy trying to bring down capitalism and the government, well, your suspicions will probably be confirmed here. Government excesses, corporate malfeasance—these stories are rife with examples. If you think these institutions have suspicious agendas, then your beliefs will also be confirmed here.
How to Get Fat Without Really Trying: The first story focuses on how government agricultural subsidies encourage the production of the stuff we should be eating less of. In other words, meat, dairy, and sugary foods (which we are supposed to eat less of) get far more money than fruits and vegetables—except for corn. Not the edible corn, but corn for livestock feed. And the soybeans are mostly turned into sweeteners too.
So why are we fat? The story contends that we are fat because most of the foods that are cheaply produced and take up shelf space in your supermarket are cheap and easy because of government subsidies, which leaves the food companies with a financial incentive to market massive amounts to junk food. Amaze at how government subsidies make the popcorn you gorge yourself with at the movies enormously profitable. And the corn sweeteners in your candy. And your soda.
This is an interesting story, although if you have read the far superior Fast Food Nation you already know how agribusiness lobbying has locked down our tax money. Why don't we spend more money on fruits and vegetables? One guy says with defeat, "Our lobbyists aren't good enough." Jennings also visits a "food stylist" convention, where marketers learn techniques for making the food look good. We also see an awful lot of corporate apologists who tell us that their companies are marketing responsibly, but Jennings shows us no evidence that this is so. One guy who specializes in creating a "nag factor" (getting children to nag parents to buy junk) actually says, without a trace of irony, that parents and kids who have to deal with nagging have their relationship "fundamentally flawed."
Ecstasy Rising: I went to college with a guy who wrote his thesis on MDMA a couple of years after it became illegal. My first thought when this second story began was, "I wonder whatever happened to him?" Well, he is now a PhD and featured prominently in this investigative piece as an expert on Ecstasy. For all his legendary partying in college, he seems quite articulate here. So much for "just say no."
Anyway, this story on the creation and rise of MDMA—alias "Ecstasy"—features lots of positive testimonials. Even its critics can show little evidence of any negative effects—other than to say, like the counselor on South Park, that "drugs are bad." Is there a downside to X? If you are looking for some Reefer Madness paranoia, you won't find it here. One government scientist tries to argue that Ecstasy destabilizes your serotonin levels—but his are the only major studies charging brain damage by MDMA, his studies were paid for by the government, and he was forced to retract one of the studies for faulty research. Independent research is inconclusive. Foam party anyone?
LAPD: "There is no more dangerous place in America to be a police officer. And there is no more dangerous place in America to be a young man," says Jennings. Welcome to Los Angeles. More violent and confusing than a James Ellroy novel, the real LA is still recovering from the Rodney King riots—hell, it is still recovering from the Watts riots forty years ago. The Rampart scandal (in which a squad tasked with handling gang activity framed dozens of suspects) does not make the LAPD's job easier. The folks in the neighborhoods overrun by gangs are afraid of the gangs—and more afraid of the cops. And there are one-quarter the number of cops that New York City has (and way more gangbangers), disproportionately located in the wealthier neighborhoods.
Jennings tries to convey the difficult conditions experienced by LAPD officers trying to survive the urban sprawl of a city always on the verge of unraveling. This story works in part because we actually see Jennings out in the field with the cops, giving the story a more visceral quality. Now this is actual journalistic investigation.
Guantanamo: 9/11 pissed us off, and not without reason. So we attacked Afghanistan, trying to weed out the terrorists who assaulted us. We still did not feel better. So we attacked Iraq. All those prisoners needed to go somewhere. So President Bush signed an executive order announcing that "enemy combatants" could be treated any damn way we wanted to treat them. The Geneva Conventions stipulations regarding "prisoners of war?" They don't apply to anybody deemed an "illegal enemy combatant." And everybody who lives in the war zone, by definition, becomes an "illegal enemy combatant."
Bush told the Pentagon to convert Guantanamo Bay, a military base whose primary function seemed to be to tweak the nose of Fidel Castro, into a prison camp. But now, "it was the legal equivalent of outer space," a world where the Constitution had no foothold. Everyone is assumed guilty.
But Jennings profiles one suspected Guantanamo prisoner who is, based on these stories, unlikely to be a terrorist. How many others are there? The real surprise is how many officials—conveniently now no longer part of the Bush administration—disagreed with abandoning the Geneva Convention. Not surprising is how little real access the ABC News team has in their visit to Guantanamo. It is, after all, a military camp. Everybody—everybody—denies there is anything resembling torture going on.
From the Tobacco File: This next story is actually a collection of three short pieces about the tobacco industry's lobbying efforts and victories. If you think the big tobacco companies are on the run and public health is getting smoking under control—you are very wrong. We learn how the government came inches from a huge legal settlement with big tobacco—which they then completely scuttled. A group of states won an enormous financial settlement—then squandered most of the money. There are huge regulations limiting "quit smoking" products—but no regulations about the contents of cigarettes themselves. Overall, this is probably the weakest episode in the set, since it likely does not tell you anything you do not already know: government and a huge industry with deep pockets and lots of lobbying power are doing naughty things in bed together. If you are surprised by any of this, you are pretty naïve. If you are disgusted by it, you are only human—and therefore probably not a tobacco company executive.
No Place to Hide: This final piece is a survey of surveillance: how government and corporations have teamed up to gather information about you, hunt you down, and control your purchases, actions, behaviors. It is all done in the name of security, partly a result of 9/11. But much of this information is for sale. One CEO of a data mining company says he "believes in the right to privacy, but not the right to anonymity." He has no problem selling your information to marketers—or handing it over to the government. Worse, many people have inaccurate information in their records, which may result in everything from credit rejection to arrest.
All of the stories in The Peter Jennings Collection are probably worth watching once. Once. And that is exactly the problem. The most likely target audience for this two-disc DVD set is a library. Check this out of your library, enlighten yourself, and then—if you are so inclined—investigate further.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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