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Dennis Tito Discusses His Space Odyssey

Aired May 15, 2001 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, he's been an eyewitness to history around the world. ABC news anchorman Peter Jennings is here for the hour. We'll take your calls.

And first, he paid millions to spend eight days off this planet. WAS it worth it? In his first interview since returning to Earth, pioneering space tourist, Dennis Tito, will join us from Moscow.

All next, on LARRY KING LIVE.

Peter Jennings got the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award today from Quinnipiac University School of Communications, a great honor. We'll talk to him. He's our special guest for the hour.

Joining us at the beginning of this hour from Moscow is Dennis Tito, his first interview since his return from space. It's early in the morning in Moscow. It's nighttime here in New York. And since Pete is with us, he'll ask us some questions, too, of Mr. Tito.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: He looks pretty good.

KING: He does. You look good, Dennis. What was the biggest surprise of this journey?

DENNIS TITO, FIRST SPACE TOURIST: Well, clearly the biggest surprise was how good I felt. I knew this was going to be an adventure, and I had planned for the worst. I've been on sailing trips where I had motion sickness earlier my life, and I knew people that went to Everest, and went on adventures -- it was not the most comfortable experience. And instead, I experienced six days on the station that was euphoria from beginning to end.

KING: You are still in Moscow. Why?

TITO: Well, I just got back here last night. I have been in L.A. the last five days. They're having a ceremony today, and I'm heading back tomorrow.

KING: Now, Dennis, what is it like, if it can be described, to float around?

TITO: Well, obviously, it's a very different experience. And floating around is so different than being here on Earth. You actually feel like a different species. Obviously, birds don't even float. They have to fly.

And after about a week of reflecting, I realized that if you go back in the religious art, you see these angels that float around with little wings that could not possibly support them. And what I had was a little bit of an experience of being in heaven. And floating around in space was like being an angel looking down at the Earth.

JENNINGS: Mr. Tito, it's Peter Jennings. I have covered space, I think, along with Larry, since the days of Gemini and Mercury. And I've asked every astronaut, always the same question. Can you take us a step further on the feeling of weightlessness? You looked a little uncertain in your first couple of days.

TITO: Well, you probably didn't see me until I arrived at the station. And as far as I recall, my only problem with weightlessness was navigating around, because no one can really teach you that on the ground. And you have to be very careful not to bump into things. But as far as, you know, being disoriented, that was not a problem. And I had absolutely no feelings of motion sickness, and I thoroughly enjoyed weightlessness.

KING: Any fear at all?

TITO: Absolutely none. Particularly, during the launch phase, my heart rate was normal throughout the boost. And I knew we had the escape system. And if anything were to happen with the booster, we would have survived.

KING: What about food?

TITO: I wasn't too hungry on the first two days, where we ended up going -- catching up with the station. And I actually forced myself to eat, which of course, was a mistake, and nature took its course on that one. So I ended up with bread and water for the first two days.

But once I got on the station, there was a great supply of food, and I -- fortunately, I volunteered for duty of -- pantry duty, and sorting out the food. So I was able to find the best food. And I ended up with finding a lot of Italian food, which I enjoyed.

KING: I bet.

TITO: So I had a great time, as far as eating.

JENNINGS: Mr. Tito, I think most people are now aware that NASA was not particularly happy with you going up with the Russians. But the "New York Times," I noticed, on the third of May, raised an issue which a lot of people wonder.

When they wrote, should an emergency arise, say a fire or a structural failure, "Mr. Tito would probably be a burden, much like the wealthy amateur mountain climbers who go to Mount Everest and pray that their professional guides get them to the top, or at least get them out of trouble."

What was your deal with the Russians, if you got into trouble?

TITO: OK, well, it wouldn't have been if I got into trouble. It would have been all of us getting into trouble. And I had, I think, a slight advantage along with my crew, in that we just spent two days in the Soyuz, and we'd been in and out of our spacesuits several times.

So if there was an emergency -- and there's really two types of emergencies that cause emergency evacuation, and that's fire and depressurization. And we know exactly what panels and sounds signal that. We knew exactly where to go. We knew how to get our spacesuits on, and we'd have had that hatch closed probably faster than even the long-term crew, because we were very familiar with our spacesuits. So I feel that that was a false worry, and that, in event of emergency, we would have done just fine.

JENNINGS: Did you ever feel you'd be a burden on the crew if the spacecraft got in trouble?

TITO: No, because I have an engineering knowledge. I had 900 hours of training, I was trained as well as any other cosmonaut. And I was not going to be a burden. I kept out of the way.

And most people don't realize how huge the station is. It's about 100 meters from one end to the other, and most of the work that's being done by the long-term crew is in the American sector that has all the computers and the robot arm, and so forth. It's hard to be in the way if you're 100 yards away.

KING: How did the Americans treat you?

TITO: They were very nice. I think they were a little nervous because they were told by their superiors, you know, not to act extra friendly. But you could see through that. You know what people are being told to do, and you know what is really in their heart. And we were one crew up there. Six of us in space, and it was a wonderful experience.

KING: Was it worth the money, Dennis?

TITO: Absolutely, because I -- again, I did not expect the experience to be so broad and enlightening. I connected with my children way beyond ever having done that. I experienced various kinds of emotions. I described -- this I love space, paradise, heaven.

But to have six days where I had a constant high, no pun intended, was just the greatest experience of my life. And I'll carry that with the rest of my life.

KING: Thank you, Dennis. Look forward to seeing you back home. Dennis Tito, his first interview since his return from space.

TITO: OK, thank you.

KING: Dennis Tito in Moscow. Before we break, would you have gone? JENNINGS: I don't know, to be perfectly honest. I mean, it's a terrifying experience, I think, in some ways. I mean, he pointed out that he was very well trained. I've never resented the fact that he spent his $20 million in that way. I wonder if other people will be as well-equipped as him. I wanted to ask him whether or not anybody with $20 million should now go, and they'll get the price down in time.

KING: Supposing that -- forget money. Would you go?

JENNINGS: Would I go? That's a question you can't answer if you haven't had the training. I remember in the old days, they used to take journalists occasionally up in an old 707 and they'd turn it up in a great arc and you'd have these momentary feelings of weightlessness. And I think all of us who covered space in the early days were wildly envious of the astronauts in some way. But also, always frightened, always knew that they were putting their lives on the edge.

KING: Peter Jennings, our special guest for the hour. We thank Dennis Tito. This is LARRY KING LIVE. We'll be right back.


KING: We are back with Peter Jennings, anchor and senior editor of "ABC News World Tonight." We just received the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from Quinnipiac University School of Communications. I got a copy of your speech. You were pretty rough today on the business.

JENNINGS: I think I tried to be fairly honest about it. We are in a certain circumstance -- it makes you think -- you know, the space thing, we were talking when the cameras weren't on, about how exciting the early days were in television news. I'm now talking the '60s and into the early part of the '70s. Covering space was just amazing and we did it all the time. We went for every launch, we lived down in Cocoa Beach in Florida for...

KING: Used to name every person that every went...

JENNINGS: Yes, and, we were very close to the astronauts, and very close to their families in many cases, and it was -- but it is not something we would cover today, I think. With the regularity, some of that has to do with...

KING: One of the things you said did say today was, you are very concerned about this battle for ratings, dollars and news, when dollars didn't used to count in news, networks -- all of us competing for the same story, the same time things, not being covered. This was a slap at telecast journalism news.

JENNINGS: Broadcast journalism was precisely what I was talking about, and it is not as if we haven't had money issues before, and it's not as if it's only since we got (UNINTELLIGIBLE) by these big companies that profit became an issue. In some respects, I think it was many people in the news divisions who said, look at us, we can actually make money.

But I did quote my former boss Arledge, who campaigned for years to have the news programs exempt from the ratings, so that in prime time, you wouldn't compete on prime time broadcast numbers and values. And what I think has happened, is that we have, because the competition is so intense, because the television universe is fractured so much, well beyond the advent of CNN, is that we all chase after the same story.

And, when we are all chasing after the same story with fewer resources that we had in the past then we are less inclined to go off on those journeys of discovery, which I like to think, the old television audience which knew us so well, expected us to do, so they leave us.

KING: You were saying you were supposed to introduce things to people.


KING: Not do the expected.

JENNINGS: We have done this, both of us, for a long, long time now, we're getting pretty old, fellow. The great joy of being a journalist was to go off and see things, and talk to people, and try to extract their experiences, and make their experiences meaningful to the television audience home. Well, the less we do of that, the less people we had traditionally as audience, want to hang round with us, so they go elsewhere, we have less audience, so we do more of the other stuff, chasing the same stories all the time.

I hope someone will wake up and figure it out.

KING: Rumors around about all sorts of mergers possibly occurring between CNN, ABC -- what do you make of that?

JENNINGS: Well, I don't know what to make of it, but I think it is another reflection of how our universe is changing. CNN, I know has been in talks with CBS; it makes absolute sense that CNN is talking to ABC. We are a great organization, you are a good organization. I have no idea what's going to come you of it and I don't think it's actually even serious at this particular point, but I think makes good sense for CNN and ABC to talk, as it makes sense for CNN and CBS to talk.

Doesn't make much sense for ABC and CBS to talk together. But, you know, because you -- but at any rate, I'm not in management, so it is not something I have to carry the can for. I think we are different news cultures to some extent. So, I think that has been an issue all the time.

KING: But a marriage is possible...

JENNINGS: I haven't the vaguest idea whether it is possible, and it is -- it is far, as they say, above my pay grade, but I think it makes good sense for the management at ABC or any network to talk to CNN or vice-versa.

KING: I think it is more position than pay grade.

JENNINGS: I accept that.

KING: All right. Stories we cover that -- tomorrow night, we are going to do an hour on the Robert Blake killing.

JENNINGS: I don't -- it's all yours.

KING: You don't want that story.

JENNINGS: I don't want that story on "World News Tonight," not because I don't rate it or not because I'm not personally interested in it, but I think that on the evening news broadcast, "World News Tonight" is in serious competition all the time with CBS and NBC particularly. And I want people to understand -- I think we all do at ABC -- that if you come to "World News Tonight" you get something different from the other guys. In part, it's what I mean by us all chasing the same story all the time.

I don't resent the Blake Story, I don't think it's unworthy of coverage. I just don't think it should fit in our particular vision, because people can get it so many other places. They get it on local television, they get it on you, they get it relentlessly on MSNBC, and to a lesser extent, on FOX, so they don't need to come to us to see that.

I want them to come to us for the -- without sounding pompous about it -- with a major -- I want them to come to us to understand George Bush's energy policy. I want them to come to us to California. I want the audience to come to us also for some fun stories.

We did a wonderful story on the broadcast tonight about how the crown princess in Japan is pregnant, and will it matter which -- everybody will do -- one line or -- but I want people to come to us so that they can see that this might make a difference in Japan now, because Japan may end up having an empress heir, rather than an emperor heir, and that makes a difference.

KING: So, before you go on, during the day, you are thinking about not only what you are going to present, but how will we be different?

JENNINGS: Well, it is not so much how we will be different for the sake of being different, but Paul Slaven (ph), my executive producer, my management, I think, feels like this, everybody in broadcast feels: What is it about "World News Tonight" which will be distinctive? And by that I essentially mean distinctive from the other broadcasts on the air on that given time.

You're distinctive. You don't do the same thing the guy next door is doing, and I don't know why you should.

KING: You shouldn't.

JENNINGS: I would not think so.

KING: We'll be back with more of Peter Jennings; he's one of the best ever. Don't go away.


KING: We are back with Peter Jennings.

All right, on an obvious story, the big one is McVeigh-FBI. Correct?

JENNINGS: Yes, but I think it is -- I mean, it's not a follow me story by any means. McVeigh would have been executed under the -- before the current circumstances, tomorrow, will be put off least until the 11th. That is a story, it seems to me, for great discovery. Take a look at this picture.

KING: We've only seen it 8,000...

JENNINGS: This is the famous perp walk -- the perpetrator walk. If somebody hadn't facilitated that walk, Tim McVeigh would be a much different character visually, and emotionally I think in people's lives.

And that is why in some police departments in this country there, they have been sued to stop the perp walk, because it casts somebody's client in a particular image. A lot of people are talking whether Timothy McVeigh will be the winner now, whether he's sitting in his cell and laughing at the FBI. And maybe he will stretch this out, in order perhaps to make the FBI look worse -- it looks pretty bad at the moment -- and he has that option.

But Tim McVeigh is a loser. And he will, I don't doubt for a second, die for his crimes, and he'll become a character in history, not an enormous figure in history, but a character in history. And I won't be disappointed to see the story disappear with the intensity that we now cover it.

But it is a great story in some ways. I don't mean to be cavalier about it. It gives us a chance to look at the death penalty, and the polls and the public opinion of death penalty moved up. It gives us a chance to look at martyrdom. It gives us a chance to talk about who misses Tim McVeigh, if anybody will.

It has been -- it has been a sad but interesting story to watch Oklahoma City emerge from this morass. You know, we have this sort of popular image about Oklahoma City, the entire city has been dragged down perpetually by this. Oklahoma City is a vigorous city in the heartland of the country. They just got a new convention center, they got a new hockey rink, they worked on it.

So, in other words, every story like this, aside from having its own intrinsic value, it seems to be as a target of opportunity for us to do a ton of things.

KING: And how about the FBI's story? That spy is going to be indicted tomorrow.

JENNINGS: You know, I was looking at the figures yesterday. In the last year, the FBI has had 188,338 cases that it had to deal with, 188,000 -- let me get the figures -- 180,000 cases they've dealt with in the last year. And we should look hard at the FBI. And I don't know what the screw-up is in McVeigh, is it willful, is it people withholding information, is it problem of archiving -- I don't think we know.

But it is worth looking at, and it's worth looking at the culture of the FBI as we did the other night. But the Salvati case, where a guy was kept in jail for so many years in order to protect an informer, the Alabama bombing case, in which information was withheld that might have sent a man to prison. So I think they are all different.

And then overall -- or maybe under all -- there is this story of the FBI culture. I'm always very reluctant -- I know you aren't -- I'm very reluctant always to push a big brush across...


KING: But we do in this era of 24-hour news. Conjecture becomes part of the game, right -- that we're playing?

JENNINGS: I'm -- I'm desperately opposed to conjecture, because it was the old story -- what does it take -- it takes the truth however long to get around the world, takes a lie half the time -- I've forgotten the precise quote. But once something gets out into the media these days, it is very hard to rectify, and so I think that -- we are best if we are just cautious a lot of times.

KING: Let me ask, Peter Jennings, what is a story? What will lead at night? How do we determine that? We'll be right back, don't go away.


KING: When you are putting things together, Peter Jennings, what is a story? Is a 14-year-old young man on trial for murder, facing death penalty in Florida, is that a big story?

JENNINGS: It can be a big story.

KING: Can be as big as Greenspan lowering interest rates?

JENNINGS: No, not at all.

KING: But some would lead with that.

JENNINGS: Well, Alan Greenspan -- what the Federal Reserve does is a story that manifests itself in every corner of the nation.

KING: And affects everybody.

JENNINGS: And affects everybody. The -- what's his name again -- Brazill, young Brazill boy in Florida, 14 years old, today on trial, is a fascinating story because it has ramifications.

But it is not a story just because he testifies on cable television. That is where draw the line. I don't draw the line -- well, I don't draw the line, but I just try to resist the pressure that we are all subject to, if something has been on cable all day long -- and we watch cable, it's just like we used to read the wire services in the old days -- and that creates its own kind of pressure. I think that is the pressure we have to resist.

We did a story on Brazill the other night, and it raised these issues of whether or not a boy of 13/14 years old should be on trial as an adult, and that is a big issue in the country. We also raised the issue peripherally of whether or not he should be testifying on cable television all day. Some of it is a matter of culture, some is a matter of law.

KING: And then, how much is a matter -- for example, would you -- wouldn't you bet that more people in Des Moines tomorrow at breakfast will be talking about that boy than the interest rates?

JENNINGS: Yes, but I don't think that necessarily matters. If you are talking about the lead of the broadcast...

KING: Yeah, the...

JENNINGS: I think -- look -- people get -- people are closest to their local news in the country, and a good local television station that does a great local newscast is indispensable to a community, and all of us who do network news broadcasts feed off those local stations.

ABC affiliate in Philadelphia, WFIL, is one of the strongest stations in the country. "World News Tonight" gets more audience in Philadelphia than Brokaw and Rather combined, but it's really largely on the strength of our very good local affiliate, similar cases for CBS and NBC elsewhere in the country. So, when they come to the national news broadcast, I think you want to do something which is of national import, if that's not too stuffy a word.

But I worked for a guy a long time who went to work to NBC, named Jeff Grolnik (ph), really good executive producer. He used to be in my ear all the time covering space, and he made the point that what you can lead your broadcast with every night is that which is interesting. But our job every day is in part -- sounds a little pompous at times -- is to decide in part what is interesting for folks, and what we genuinely think it's important for them to know.

I don't think journalism changes so much that that old-fashioned notion of what is important to the audience has gone away.

KING: Do you resent the criticism of bias?

JENNINGS: I don't resent the criticism for bias, because I -- you know -- I watch television like anybody else. I watch you some nights and want to throw a shoe through the set, and I'm sure this is true of other people. I think bias is very largely in the eye of the beholder. I think we are all biased human beings. I am a white, middle-aged guy who came from a certain kind of background, and I carry a lot of emotional, political, geographic social baggage around with me.

I just think if people watch you over a length of time, they may still think you are biased in certain ways: sometimes their issue, not yours. But I think that good journalists -- if that's not too self- serving -- good journalists work very hard to leave their bias beside the typewriter, or the computer as it may be.

KING: We will be right back with more Peter Jennings. We will of course include your phone calls, don't go away.


KING: We are back with Peter Jennings. Before we go to your phone calls we were talking something during the "Ask CNN" portion, when Susan Candiotti dealt with the question about Oklahoma City.

JENNINGS: Good piece.

KING: Good piece, and you mentioned how you maybe did the first -- looked at the Terry Nichols/McVeigh story.

JENNINGS: Yes, I think -- I think I know. We made the first film about their lives.

KING: And you came away with an emotional...

JENNINGS: Well, I went and did the first interview with his father, Bill.

KING: McVeigh's father?

JENNINGS: Yes, Bill McVeigh, Tim McVeigh's father Bill, and I was in tears when it was over, because he reminded me a little bit of my own father in that he was a genuinely good and caring man. My father and I had a wonderful relationship. The parallels end there, but he lost control of his son.

This coldness that Timothy McVeigh has shown to us, said good-bye to his parents, went with his sister. The father went with Timothy's sister to see him in the prison several weeks ago, wanted a hug at the end. There was no hug. And I just -- but I remember wanting to call the broadcast "The Boy Next Door," it was 90 minute film, because, as we have subsequently discovered, McVeigh was in many ways, lived the kind of a life of the boy next door.

Terry Nichols led a totally dysfunctional life and you see it in his famous perp walk. McVeigh walks out erect, and strong, almost, and Nichols shuffles, like this frightened character on his perp walk, and he led this desperate life in the Upper Michigan Peninsula. So in some respects he was less of a surprise. But it changed the country quite radically, because it made us feel, which Americans never had to feel before to that extent, made us feel vulnerable. KING: Yes, we are.

JENNINGS: Everybody is.

KING: Carson City, Nevada, as we go to calls for Peter Jennings, hello.

CALLER: Yes, Mr. Jennings, my question is, don't you feel that the media has been very harshly critical of Mr. Tito?

JENNINGS: Well, I'm not sure. I think that NASA has been fairly critical of him and I think we have reported on the NASA criticism. No. I actually think secretly, and a little bit publicly, we have all envied Mr. Tito in some respect. I think there has been some question whether in an age of such need for people, whether it is a way to spend $20 million, Mr. Tito is a fairly philanthropic man in other regards, and I think he deserves some credit for that. But again I'm a little nervous about generalizing about the media. I think he's had pretty good coverage, by and large.

KING: Do you hate the term or dislike the term "mainstream media" when those critics say, oh, the mainstream media.

JENNINGS: Well, and the euphemism or the synonym for that is the establishment media. I think it's because we have been around. I think there is a mainstream media. CNN is mainstream media, in the main: ABC, CBS, NBC are mainstream media. And I think it's just essentially to make the point that we are largely in the center without particular axes to grind, without ideologies which are represented in our daily coverage, at least certainly not on purpose.

KING: The critics often mean it as ideological...

JENNINGS: Well, no, I think they just sort of mean it as dismissive at times and I don't mind that.

KING: Monument, Colorado, for Peter Jennings, hello.

CALLER: Hi, I wanted to ask Mr. Jennings how he thinks the Internet is going to change our news in the future.

JENNINGS: Well, I think it is changing us already in some respects, in that people are getting their news on the Internet. I think fewer people getting their news on the Internet that we'd anticipated at this stage. It's made it a wonderfully interactive experience for those of us in broadcasting. I do, at the risk of shilling, a daily newsletter for, and it has been wonderful for me in terms of getting feedback for the audience.

But I think that almost everybody who is involved in the Internet at the moment, who expected it to have tremendous acceleration and cut in to television and into radio far more radically than it already has forgot one thing: Television and radio are largely passive, and most of who go home at night, I think, are less anxious to have an interactive experience with our computers, than we are to sit down in front of TV and watch a hockey game or whatever. So I think it has a tremendous impact. I think it's also something, I don't mean to be preachy here but I think it's something to consider, my one great concern about the Internet, and I use it religiously, I use it religiously, it's the most enormously potent research tool, but I'm never quite sure if I'm talking to a goat. And that does, that does make me a little nervous at times.

KING: Journalism and rumors: Was it fair for the journalist in Florida to ask Governor Jeb Bush about an affair? If the affair were rumored?

JENNINGS: I don't think it's a question of fairness. I mean, I was always taught when I was a young reporter that there is no such thing as stupid question, only a stupid answer, and you expect a politician of Governor Bush's caliber to be able to deal with almost any question.

What the bad part is, if we, the rest of us in the media, take the journalist's question and run with it and turn rumor into something approaching fact, I think that is the hard part. I think that is where the pressure of so much media, including this gentleman's reference to Internet, comes into being. I think that's where we have to restrain ourselves. You can't prevent people from asking the worst possible questions in the world.

KING: But then you know it is going to lead to somebody's looking into this, and the tabloids are going to come out next week with something. You know that.

JENNINGS: Yes, and by the way, let's be fair. The "National Enquirer" for one, has done some very good reporting in the last couple years.

KING: Sure has.

JENNINGS: And some people in the mainstream media have resented it. But here is a really good example of it, if I may advance it: Bob Kerrey. Bob Kerrey emerges, former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Vietnam War hero, emerges after 32 years and wants to talk about his experiences in Vietnam.

One of the key questions is, put aside what happened on that night in Vietnam, but one of the key questions is: Why did he come out after 32 years? Because he felt utterly compelled to come clean at this point? Or because the rumor was around that somebody was on the story and he, as an experienced politician, wished to preempt the story?

KING: The latter, we know.

JENNINGS: Well, without making a judgment, without making a judgment it is something for audience to consider, but it's something for other journalists to consider when dealing with what is around. There's so much stuff around in our universe all the time.

KING: Peter Jennings is the guest. Back with more calls and more questions after this.


KING: Before we take the next call, Peter was telling me, he grew up in Canada, so civil war was new to him. We learn about he American Civil War.

JENNINGS: Well, no, not much American history was taught in Canadian schools. So here I am, a middle-aged man, working with Todd Brewster, with whom I did "The Century," trying to write a new book about America in the beginning of the 21st century.

KING: That's what you're doing now, right?

JENNINGS: Yes, and it will take us a couple of years to finish it. But I am now inundated with American history, and loving every second of it. We were talking about a book called "April 1865: The Month That Saved America," by a professor at the University of Maryland, who I heard on the radio the other day talking about the surrender at Appomattox, and Lee going to communion in the local Episcopal church -- I think it was a Baptist church, I guess. And a black man suddenly goes and takes communion beside him, and the church is hushed. And it's absolutely fabulous.

Dick Brookhiser's just written a new book about Alexander Hamilton -- there's these great revisionists. There's always revision about Jefferson. And there's a fascinating revisiting of history now, about how the war started. Because many people in the South have always believed that it began on the issue of states' rights, and so there's a whole new trend of history now, which says: No, it wasn't about states' rights. It was really about slavery.

KING: There's always reevaluations of the generals in that war: He's better than we thought, he was worse than we thought.

JENNINGS: But what's exciting for a journalist -- for me, at least, is how it revisits it. Todd and I wrote a piece a couple of years ago about the power of the Tenth Amendment, states' rights. And here you have Gale Norton going off on the South and talking about states' rights. And we have the whole struggle now between the federal government and states' rights on issues of the environment and energy.

So the continuum of American history -- doesn't matter when we came here. Doesn't matter whether we were running -- I wasn't running away from anything when I came here from Canada. But the continuum of American history is something which every new person coming here, whether they're a Latino, or Eastern Europe, or from Canada, wherever else -- they can always attach themselves to it.

KING: Seattle, hello.

CALLER: Hello! My question for Mr. Jennings is in reference to the brutal nature of some of the video that we're now seeing on local news, and why, I guess, why the trend is that direction. I live in a city where we had a gentleman murdered by police -- or shot by police. He wasn't murdered. And someone was killed at Mardi Gras, and beatings downtown. And they play this video over and over. And I understand the necessity for it once, maybe twice. I'm just wondering what you feel about that trend.

JENNINGS: Well, I think the question's actually more complicated even, maybe, than you intend. There are a lot of local television stations in the country which live by the motto "If it bleeds, it leads," because the news directors in some of these stations actually believe that people are attracted to violence. And the truth of the matter is that a large number of people in the audience are attracted to violence.

You should dismiss, in my view, this local station, if you have any aversion to the repetition of violence. On the other hand, violence is a reality of life. I once got in terrible trouble during the civil war in Lebanon by showing the full extent of a child, dead child, being brought out of a building, carried down a fire ladder, and handed across a crowd to an ambulance. The child was a baby. The child was clearly dead. People were outraged.

But I felt at the time it was the only way that I could convey to people the violence of Lebanon, to which people were becoming all-too accustomed -- not paying attention. As we didn't, in time, for a long period of time, pay attention to the violence in Vietnam. So it's touchy. The "bleed that leads" school just leaves me cold, but violence occurs in our society.

KING: Yeah, but let's say it's a big city -- Miami. And there's one fire in Coral Gables in Miami. One person's killed in the fire, and they lead with that. They lead with the two fire...

JENNINGS: I have to tell you, there's always an audience for it. Listen, part of...

KING: That's not the big story.

JENNINGS: Well, it may not be the big story in town on that particular given day, but sometimes stories done to draw people into the tent, like the old carnival barkers did.

KING: That's what it is, isn't it?

JENNINGS: A little bit. But, you know, here's where it plays, I think, in a broad national sense -- this question about the death penalty, and whether or not there should be televising of the McVeigh execution. Those people who believe it should be televised believe that people should see what the state is doing in their name.

Now, ironically, that was a powerful argument years ago, when the electric chair was more prevalent. But I'm not sure, ironically, it's a powerful argument today, given the fact that there's more violence on television every day both in theatrical, and putting someone to sleep.

KING: By the way, would you cover an execution?

JENNINGS: Would I be witness to one?

KING: Yes.

JENNINGS: I'd have to have a pretty good reason to it. I mean, I've seen people die before, as anybody, I think in my end of the business has. I certainly am not eager to get in line, but I'm not reluctant to do it, because -- sounds a bit ghoulish, I guess, but part of what I do for a living, try to do for a living, is to try to record history and put it in some kind of context for people. But I wouldn't rush to line up to be a witness.

But this aversion to covering the McVeigh story -- I heard Dan Rather -- I watched you and Dan last night. Dan an has an aversion to covering the story. I do not share that aversion. I think the people of Oklahoma City are profoundly important to this. I empathize with their pain. I went to Oklahoma City on that first anniversary. I couldn't hold it together myself.

I remember ending our broadcast reading a poem from the state cowboy -- from the official state poet, who had written -- a poet for the occasion. I couldn't keep it together. But that doesn't mean I have any aversion to covering the story, because I think it's important for those of us who do what we do to try to communicate to other people...

KING: The thought of the children...


KING: We're still human.

JENNINGS: Well, of course we're human. And I don't want anybody to interpret the fact that I don't feel profoundly -- let me put it another way. I don't want to try to impose my feelings about the people on those people who've lost their children. They have enough feeling for themselves. They know what they're feeling. They do not need me or any of the rest of us superimposing our emotions on them. That's why, dare I say, the anchorperson has always got to stand back, even at the risk of seeming a little cold-blooded at times, so as not to impose our emotions on others.

KING: Not always easy.

JENNINGS: No, it isn't easy, no. Ronald Reagan went to see -- when Ronald Reagan went to see the family of the Challenger astronauts in Houston -- Ronald Reagan was the greatest national mourner we had. And he had a way of mourning on behalf of the nation. Bill Clinton had some of it, too.

KING: Yeah.

JENNINGS: And Ronald Reagan put his arms around those people in Houston, they played the Navy hymn in the background. Oh, man, I was out of there.

KING: Back with more of Peter. You got me out of it now. Back with more of Peter Jennings right after this.


KING: We're back, with Peter Jennings. Let's change the mood a little before we take our next call.

JENNINGS: People don't understand that when we're -- you know, when we're not on the air, a couple of -- you realize how long we've been telling stories to each other? Must be 35 years.

KING: Thirty-five.

JENNINGS: Yeah, and you look a lot -- never mind.

KING: We had a story today that was made for cable news -- the runaway train. For 2 1/2 hours, we think we got a guy with a heart attack driving a train, and he's incommunicado. And it turns out the train went by itself.

JENNINGS: One of those extraordinarily hypnotic stories, which we all just...

KING: There it is. Now, why are we hypnotized by this? All right, there is chemicals on this train, obviously. But where is it going to go? It's got to end somewhere.

JENNINGS: It ended, actually, in northeastern Ohio. I was actually reading the railroad map at the time, from this particular railroad. It's just one of those moments -- it's a bit like the car chases that occur so often, in California, particularly. It's just utterly hypnotic.

And we're all putting ourselves on that train, or in those communities that going through -- it went through a college town. It went through (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a lot of rural country. And I'm going to tell you, the worst thing, that nobody in television will tell you. Finally, when this train comes to a halt, two guys...

KING: Someone jumped on, right?

JENNINGS: Yes, and the first guy who tried to jump on was on this side of the train. And you could hear people in newsrooms all over America saying: "Great, he's getting on this side of the train."

The guy who finally got on the train got on from the other side. And you could hear people in newsrooms all over country saying: "He should have got on from this side."


Now, I'm sorry to be so -- to tell our stories out of school, but it is just, it is one of those hypnotic occasions. Thank God nobody was hurt, turned out nobody was on the train whatsoever, and somebody didn't put the brake on properly. If anybody had been hurt, that would be telling a different story.

KING: Houston, Texas, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry, hi, Peter, how are you all?

KING: Fine.

CALLER: My question is, Peter, a little bit ago, you were saying you felt there was a responsibility for reporting certain stories and how you did not want to cover the Robert Blake tragedy with his wife and the murder, and my question is: I find it really shocking in the morning when I'm listening to the morning news -- and I have got the national news stories covering "Survivor," and who is left on the island.

I don't buy into reality TV. I can't say I have ever watched the story, and yet, I find this is really not national -- newsworthy news. And it's all over local news, it's national news, and it's really irrelevant to what is important in society and I just wanted your opinion.

JENNINGS: I just I want to be very certain that you understand me here, I don't want to be self-important on this about this. I'm not immune to the Robert Blake story at all. I find it compelling in its own way. But as you point out, lots of people are covering that story, you can get it in a score of different places, probably a little hard to get "Survivor" stories in other places but CBS.

But the answer is, you can see that if you look around, until you find it. I just think it is not something that we -- we don't have an awful lot of time every day. We are not like you, having to fill up hours and hours and...

KING: If an arrest is made tomorrow, you are going to covering that.

JENNINGS: Yes, we will cover it, we'll probably tell it. I'm not sure we would do an actual full story, but I think we might probably tell it.

But I would have a fight with some people on the staff about that.

KING: Really.

JENNINGS: There are other people who think differently than I.

KING: There are fights on the staff.

JENNINGS: Are you kidding? In my news room? All the time.

KING: Bolivar, Ohio, hello.

Caller: Hi, there. My question is, what was the most important lesson that Mr. Jennings learned from the 2001 presidential election? Thank you.

JENNINGS: Well, that is a wonderful question. Because we have been asked so many questions about...

KING: I'll tell you what, we'll take a break. This is a hanger, and you can think about it: the most important lesson that Peter Jennings learned from the 2001 election. We will be right back. Don't go away.

JENNINGS: Humility.


KING: OK, Peter, what did you learn?

JENNINGS: That's a tough question. The first thing that came to mind actually was that Al Gore learned that he'd counted in some of the wrong places, in terms of looking for votes.

I think the answer -- we learned that people can stay away from the polls and still exercise their democratic right or address themselves. I think that the answer the young woman is looking for is that we learned humility.

The first call on Florida, the first bad call in Florida, I think was a reasonably justified call, in that we used these polling models for years. We used them very responsibly, they had been pretty good.

The second call was pretty preposterous. And we have a wonderful political editor at ABC -- we're talking about making that second call -- all we can hear in our ear at that time. And Halperin is rolling his eyes, saying, this is not a call we want to make. And of course, we made the call, so I suppose that what we learned, one single lesson we learned as reporters from that was a sense of humility, redo the computer models, take a look again at what we do, so that we do it in a more conscientious way the next time.

KING: What did they do -- I don't remember -- pre-computer, pre- exit polls, 1948?

JENNINGS: Key precincts. Key precincts.

KING: They still project...

JENNINGS: They're reporting -- no it didn't project so much, but you relied -- but relied on key precincts, those precincts which represented demographically, politically, racially, economically, ethically -- represented a state or any particular given community.

And what polling and computers managed to do was to scrunch that, and heighten the speed. One of the great stories of the new century is how we are all dealing with the speed at which our lives are traveling, not to mention the speed at which I am sometimes talking. And that has just simply accelerated the process by which we cover politics.

And, by the way, has enabled, everybody in the political establishment to call us up 1:00 in the afternoon, because no one wants to know more urgently what's happening, than the political establishment.

KING: And look at it now with -- they're already talking about 2004.

JENNINGS: Well, yes, that doesn't -- that doesn't surprise me at all. I mean, the moment the inauguration is complete, if not the night the election is over, people began campaigning for the next time. I think the 2002 Congressional elections are going to be fascinating, and as we watch the president turn out his energy policy...

KING: Tomorrow.

JENNINGS: Tomorrow, on Thursday actually, Thursday actually.

And as we watch Democrats begin to maneuver on the question of both energy, and on conservation, and on taxes, we are dealing with a very, very closely divided Senate and House of Representatives -- I don't need to tell you that -- so the next looming election is the Congressional one, because if it changes, and it goes the Democrats's way, George Bush's acceleration which he has had so successfully in this Congress so far, could come to a grinding halt.

It's interesting to watch him learning to be president.

KING: Yeah, we are all watching him.

JENNINGS: Yeah, nice to see you again, Larry. Thank you for your time.

KING: Peter Jennings, anchor/senior editor of ABC "World News Tonight." It got the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award today.

Want more with Peter Jennings? Check out the five questions segment, at Kings Table Talk on my Web cite. My address is

Tomorrow night, despite Peter's objections, we will discuss the Robert Blake story, and the death of his wife.

And Friday night, I don't know how Peter reacts to this, "The Sopranos" will be with us.

JENNINGS: All at them at once?

KING: All of them.

JENNINGS: There is a real challenge for network TV.

KING: We'll see tomorrow night, and stay tuned for "CNN TONIGHT."

From New York, good night.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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