I met Jennings in 1987 at a media symposium at St. Louis University. I was in high school at the time, and found him exactly as he appeared to be on camera: a touch aloof (probably due to shyness) but unflaggingly gracious and polite. For me, that style had always made Jennings the most watchable and authoritative of the three network anchors.
Unfortunately, my respect for him was largely undone with the ABC "Search for Jesus" special he helmed in 2000. The program was a disingenuous, wildly unbalanced, thinly disguised attack on the Christian faith in the guise of a documentary. I have no problem with anyone raising honest questions about Christianity; in fact, I invite it. But rather than presenting scholars from across the spectrum, Jennings relied mainly on the Jesus Seminar, a radically liberal group that true biblical scholars on every side of the fence deride as a bankrupt farce.
Here's the way the Associated Press review of the program put it at the time:
ABC's implicit plot line pits the touching faith in the Gospels among common folk in Bethlehem, Nazareth or Alexandria, La., against the experts, who supposedly know better. That's a hugely distorted picture.Keep in mind, that's not Christianity Today or World magazine talking--it's the Associated Press. Finally seeing Jennings' work in an area I knew something about, I realized I could no longer trust his reporting to be truthful.
But, as the old saying goes, a reporter is only as good as his sources. In Jennings' lopsided lineup, the key talking heads consist of five American liberals, a middle-roader in Israel and a lone traditionalist from England.
Jennings seems to have discovered none of the estimable moderate and conservative scholars in America. And even on the liberal side, the show doesn't visit the blueblood campuses where biblical history is being undermined, nor does it hear from some prime figures in the debate.
Though viewers aren't told this, four of the five Americans on-screen come from the "Jesus Seminar." As fundamentalists scowled and scholars smirked, this group organized to take votes on whether each passage in the Gospels is true or false. Given the group's methods, skeptical presuppositions and special ideologies, falsity was bound to win most of the ballots.
Last year, Jennings produced another special on a biblical topic, this one called "The Search for Paul." In the leadup to the program, Jennings, through a publicist, actually requested to appear on a radio program I'm connected to. Part of my job was to prepare the host of the program for that interview. It was made clear to ABC that we had some serious beefs with Jennings' previous special and wanted to take those up with him. To our suprise, they agreed to that condition.
The host told Jennings about some elderly people he knew whose faith had been seriously damaged by "The Search for Jesus." To his credit, Jennings sounded genuinely horrified. He accepted the criticisms, acknowledged the legitimacy of some of them, and was (again) unfailingly gracious.
But he said something very disturbing in the interview. Something disturbing for a journalist to say. The host was making the point that Jennings' special hadn't told the truth. This was Jennings' response, verbatim:
I'm looking for as many opinions and ideas and reference in all this regard as I can. Your truth I fully, wholeheartedly accept. But it's not everybody's truth, and you know that.It was such a cliched articulation of relativism that I thought it was actually possible that he had misspoken. Until, unfortunately, I read this in one of his obituaries today:
[Diane] Sawyer said Jennings was a stickler for details.That is absolutely tragic. And it is also wrong, as he now knows. I think he was a genuinely nice man, and it saddens me that he's gone. I can only hope that he came to understand in the four months between his diagnosis and his death that there are eternal things that are true for everyone.
"You lived in terror because you knew you didn't know the pronunciation of a street in Beirut," said Sawyer, who said she also respected Jennings' sense of fairness.
He would say, she said, "There is no absolute truth in the world for every group of people."