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Interview with Peter Jennings

Aired April 10, 2002 - 21:00   ET


KING: Tonight: He asks a lot of tough questions, now he is going to answer some. Peter Jennings for the full hour, next on LARRY KING LIVE.

He hasn't been with us since last May. That's a long time between trips for one of my favorite people. The anchor and senior editor of ABC's "World News Tonight," Peter Jennings, thank you.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC'S "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": Nice see you. As I said, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) it's really great to see a man of courage wearing that shirt, that tie.

KING: You would never do this, would you?

JENNINGS: I don't think I'd have the nerve, no.

KING: But what nerve? It is bright. I like it.

JENNINGS: You add energy to our environment.

KING: What do you make of the latest? We've got another suicide bombing. I know you were just there. I guess no American anchor has the experience you've had in the Middle East, because you were stationed there.

JENNINGS: I was. Very lucky. I sometimes get up in the mornings and something has happened and I thank my lucky stars in a perverse sort of way that I had all these years living in the Middle East and have been able to go back on such a regular basis.

KING: Why has this gotten worse when it looked so promising?

JENNINGS: Well, I'd have to say that one of the changes would be the advent of Ariel Sharon as the prime minister of Israel. Because I don't think he had much particular interest in the Stockholm agreement, the track on which the Palestinians and the Israelis were going for so long under their labor government.

But at the same time he's up against his old nemesis Yasser Arafat whom he expelled from Lebanon in 1982. I did the last interview with Arafat before they removed him from the city. Arafat was unable to accept the deal that was offered to him at Camp David here.

KING: Why?

JENNINGS: Well, the former justice minister in the labor government Yossi Beilin (ph) , who was party to all of this, says it was a matter of timing. He also says that some time later in Taba, in Egypt, where the Israelis and the Palestinians got together again, that they, in fact, were accepting in a broad stage, more than was actually being debated at Camp David or accepted or offered in Camp David and that was actually even in the middle of the intefada.

And that both Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak were making compromises at the time. It's hard to tell, you know. I find this week that no matter what anybody says on the Middle East, and particularly the Palestinians say something else that says exact opposite. I don't envy Secretary Powell arriving there in a moment or the president trying to exert pressure on the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories at the moment.

KING: Don't we have clout?

JENNINGS: You know, it is a huge question at the moment because the president has been saying for some days now to the Israelis that he wants them to withdraw, he wants them to withdraw now. Ariel Sharon on the day that you and I are talking, says, overlooking one of the refugee camps outside Jenin, teeming community of people who have been living under occupation for a long time, that they're not going to get out until what Mr. Sharon describes as "the mission" is complete.

Now, I'm not sure I fully understand "the mission." It is easy to say root out the terrorists. I'm not sure it is possible, as was proved again with all of the Israeli incursion when another terrorist bomber got through and got into a bus outside Haifa.

KING: But Mr. Sharon does not have suicide bombers that he's sending out.


KING: And he accuses Mr. Arafat if not sending them, not being able to stop them. Isn't that his strongest point here?

JENNINGS: Well, it is certainly a point. I'm not sure it's the strongest point. Because I think that we're always dealing with three Ariel Sharons, I think. We are dealing with Ariel Sharon the old soldier. This is a man who, you know, invaded Lebanon, which was ultimately deemed I think by the Israelis a huge mistake, even though they did remove the Palestine -- the PLO and Yasser Arafat to Tunis for some years.

There is Sharon, the statesman, and there is Sharon the politician. The statesman may yet be a man who wishes to make a permanent peace with the Palestinians and withdraw the Israeli settlements from the occupied territories. We don't know that. And there is Sharon, the conservative, some would argue right-wing politician who is being constantly pressed from forces of the right wing of his own party to stay in the occupied territories ad infinitum.

KING: And speaking of that right wing, Mr. Netanyahu addressed portions of the Senate today in a very tough...

JENNINGS: It is interesting for the president. When the Senate comes back in today, having back in Washington you see gathered in one place again, a lot of allies of Israel from some of the big and influential states in the country. I was thinking late today it sort of raises the pressure on the president just again because I'm not altogether sure that we know what the president wants.

We know that the muscle of the United States is huge. We know that the United States is a huge element in the arsenal of Israel. If you look around the world at the moment, it is rather sad, I think, that the only apparent obvious friend the Israelis seem to have at the moment is the United States. So that gives the president a huge amount of authority --even with Mr. Sharon. But I'm not sure yet how he's going to use it or if he will use it. I just simply don't know. I think we will get a better feel of this when Colin the secretary of state gets there.

KING: Must Colin Powell, in your opinion, Peter, come back with something?

JENNINGS: For the good of the region, one hopes he stays there until he gets something.

KING: He doesn't have to come back.

JENNINGS: I think this is as difficult a mission as a secretary of state can go on. I think there are elements in both Israeli and Palestinian communities who genuinely want peace. I think -- and I've heard the same thing from Israelis and Palestinians for 30 years -- and I find that in some respects -- in one respect at least they haven't changed. I think most Israelis and Palestinians believe that one day there will be a Palestinian state beside an Israeli state. And they will live together in some form.

I don't think this means -- and I think we should never forget this --that there's not always going to be somebody who wishes to undermine the relationship, who wishes to do damage to Israel, who wishes to do damage to Palestinians. I think there's some huge obstacles, not least of which are the Israeli -- the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. But I think most people believe that.

That's actually quite a lot to begin with. Now if the United States plays a big role to the extent of even putting a force between the Israelis and the Palestinians through this interim period, and I'm not sure the United States is ready to do that, but I think it's something the country should think about very hard.

KING: Why do you think there's so much feelings toward -- especially toward the major networks on the part of the people, or many in the United States, that you are pro one side or the other?

JENNINGS: I don't think there's a lot. I think anybody who has worked in the Middle East probably has an advantage...

KING: A vocal group, certainly. There are vocal elements on both sides that will say, oh, that Jennings or that Rather, he's pro- Arafat.

JENNINGS: Well, actually, to be pro-Arafat or to say somebody is a pro-Arafat is a bit silly, actually, because I don't think anybody would ever find anything like that in the record. I think over a long period of time some of us who have worked and lived in the region have found it necessary to explain that there are at least two sides of the story.

KING: You get criticized just for that.

JENNINGS: You get criticized for that. I also accept that the passions in this region are as deeply held as they are on any issue in the world. Just to pick one out of the air, I think that the passion about the Middle East, particularly felt by some American Jews is deeper than the feelings about abortion, or at least as we hear it, those of us who are criticized either by one side or the other. And we get criticized by both sides.

But I think if you've lived in the region and you follow it very closely, you know the thing that always impresses me when I go to Israel, and on my recent trip I was in Egypt, then went to Lebanon to the Arab summit, and then when the bomb went off in Netanya, I went back to Netanya and then to Jerusalem, was in the occupied territories as well -- the thing that always impresses me is how much better informed Israelis seem about their situation than many American Jews. And how much more vigorously they're prepared to debate it.

KING: I'll ask you in a minute why that is. Peter Jennings is our guest. Here is a portion of his recent discussion with Chairman Arafat.


JENNINGS: We went to see President Arafat in his headquarters in Ramallah, where he has been penned in by the Israelis for more than three months.

YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT: They are putting on my shoulders conditions. Do you accept it if You are in my place?

JENNINGS: Not for me to decide, sir.

(voice-over): There is zero trust between Mr. Arafat and the Israeli government now. He told us there must be international observers on the ground.

(on camera): And what would they see?

ARAFAT: Tell your people the facts which is going on the ground. How much our people are suffering. We are human beings.



JENNINGS: When we got to the Park Hotel on the edge of the sea, it is a summer resort community. It didn't take but a second to understand why this Palestinian suicide bomber could be so effective. A long, narrow hall low ceilings extremely cheaply built. It was setting off a bomb in the most intense and closed of circumstances.


KING: We're back with Peter Jennings. The anchor, senior editor of ABC's "World News Tonight." Why, do you think the Israeli Jews know so much more about the situation.

JENNINGS: Well, I think they live with it. They live with it and, therefore recognize that anybody who lives in Israel, of course, recognizes immediately, you do not live in a monolithic society. That in a uniform society there's a left wing, a right wing, an extreme right wing, an extreme left wing.

We tend, I think, overseas -- and I think this is true whether you live in Europe or the United States -- to see the situation and the crisis, the conflict in somewhat more one-dimensional form. One side is good, one side is bad. It is very, very complicated. I think the Israeli for the most part understand that.

If you look at the Israeli polls at the moment, and they poll all the time, the Israelis. You find totally justifiably, in my view, that about 75 percent, 80 percent of the people in the country now believe that the army is currently doing what it has to be doing. But if you looked another poll almost beside it, you will find 70 percent or 85 percent of Israelis who believe there must be a settlement with the Palestinians, a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

KING: Is that contradictory?

JENNINGS: I don't think it is contradictory. In fact that's the point I'm trying to make, that it is not contradictory at all. But you get these two or three or more tracks in the Israeli mind running all the time. It is because they live there. Similarly true on the Palestinian side.

I have not met -- and I've been dealing with the Palestinians for since the early 1970s when they were in exile in Beirut, I just haven't met very many Palestinians who in the final analysis, or in any analysis, truly believe they're going to drive the Israelis into the sea. I know it is a big part of the conversation here and it is a big part of the argument all the time, I just have never met any. I met them the top and I have met them in refugee camps, I have met them in the middle class, I've met...

KING: How tough a story is this repertoirially (ph) ?

JENNINGS: Well, it is very difficult in Israel at the moment to cover the story. I was thinking coming over this evening we have three wonderful reporters there; Dean Reynolds, who used to be our bureau chief in Jerusalem, Gillian Findlay, who is our current bureau chief there. I saw her walking across the hills of the West Bank the other day trying to get past the Israelis, and realized she's several months pregnant. That's a brave woman.

And a new correspondent who works for us, Dan Harris who got caught in Ramallah in the very early stages and simply had the sense to stay in Ramallah. And Gillian did a piece for us tonight on just how difficult it is to report there because the Israelis have just decided everything is a closed area.

KING: Is it tough to be objective?

JENNINGS: Oh, no, I don't -- well, I don't know what you mean by objective. I don't think it is hard to be fair.

KING: You're walking through an area where you've just seen a suicide bomber and you've seen limbs maybe.


KING: Hard to not be emotional and feel a little pro-their position when you are in that scene?

JENNINGS: I don't think it is a question of feeling pro-their position, the last thing you showed was me in the hotel in Netanya there. And it is horrific. It is horrific and profoundly sad. You go anywhere in Israel today. You know, the streets are empty. People stay home. They're simply afraid to go out. You share that if you're there yourself. You don't want to be wandering around too freely. You share this horrible, horrible sense of vulnerability that the Israelis feel. And one hopes one reports on that sense of vulnerability.

Ironically just outside the Park Hotel where the bomb went off in Netanya, I ended up in a long discussion, about an hour, with Israeli men who had come and stood around the hotel. One of them said, a guy who worked as a steward for El Al, the national airline. He said, I think if I were a Palestinian, I think if I were a Palestinian, I could understand being a suicide bomber.

And that's a pretty startling thing to hear under the circumstances. It led to a huge, huge very heated discussion in English for my benefit, right, you know, yards away from where this horror had occurred. You report all that as best you can. The next day you may find yourself in Ramallah, which used to be this beautiful, glorious, largely Christian city in the West Bank where more people lived in the United States than Ramallah, and you are trapped inside a town and some bullet from an Israeli soldier comes through the window and kills somebody. You see the story from a different perspective and you report on that perspective.

KING: Do Arafat and Sharon have the kind of personalities that make it difficult to feel warm toward them? JENNINGS: Oh, no, not at all. Not at all. It's a very strange thing to say, but both of them, who I have seen and interviewed over many, many years are very, very engaging. I mean Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, who everybody thought was this fierce character, this Polish aristocrat, I mean he'd come and touch you, it was like being touched by an electric charge because the man had such extraordinary energy. Ariel Sharon, as I said, who is a very complex character, is engaging, human, controversial...

KING: Neither are great television people.

JENNINGS: ... and Yasser Arafat, I think it depends on the circumstances you see him under. I did, as I said, the last interview with Arafat ever, before he was expelled from Beirut. I was tapped on the shoulder in the middle of the night. Someone said the chairman wants to see you. Because we'd all been trying to get this interview. I was taken off in the middle of nowhere, in a dark a bereft West Beirut, remember, it was under siege, in some building with no lights to see Arafat, and it was a very moving interview.

And when it was over, the two cameramen I had taken with me, both of whom were Americans, they were just so profoundly moved by him at that moment that it was a reminder to me, that whatever you think of people politically and whether you think, as I do, that Arafat has not been a very good leader for the Palestinian people in recent years, that there is sometimes a very human, engaging quality to them on a one-by-one, but you are quite right, neither one of them, I suppose -- no, I'm not sure --television is what television is, and they are who they are.

KING: The camera does not love them.

JENNINGS: Not like you, Larry. I mean, the answer is, you know, I actually think ironically, the television camera catches them both quite well. In this interview I did with Chairman Arafat, I asked him some provocative question and he just stood up. And I said to myself, oh, good, he's a awake. I mean, the kind of thing I do. And then when Ariel Sharon was talking to a reporter in Jenin tonight, talking in English, you feel Sharon.

KING: We'll be right back with Peter Jennings. Don't go away.


JENNINGS: This is about catching a moment when just one of the men suggested that if he were a Palestinian living under occupation, he might do what the bomber did. Listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) The Palestinians they attack because they are fanatic Muslims. That's all. They're no doubt fanatic Muslims. They will attack any target that's against the religion of Muslims, that's all. Not because we are Jewish, not because we are not Muslims fanatical. That's all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I agree with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So why say that you understand them?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I understand them...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you understand? It's not the situation, that is not the political situation...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not on their side.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Muslims between religion, that's all.



KING: We're back with Peter Jennings. Always enjoyed his views. Always welcome him as a guest. Does this now push the question of going to Iraq on the back burner? With all the Arab world against that and this conflict going on?

JENNINGS: To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure on which -- despite all the debate about it -- which burner the Bush administration actually has it on. It is certainly true that the vice president and subsequently Colin Powell discovered in the Arab world not much support for going after Saddam Hussein, and clearly an encouragement by the Arab states, which they found elsewhere by the way, in Europe and at the United Nations generally, to deal with the Israeli/Palestinian issue first.

But Saddam Hussein is still a huge challenge for the United States. I just simply have no idea what the Bush administration really -- I hear people all the time say, oh, let's go get Saddam Hussein, let's root out terrorism. Let's do -- I mean, the air waves, as you know better than anybody, are full of this kind of talk all the time. It's much more serious than that, and I just have no idea what they're going to do, if anything.

KING: Are you surprised that the American polls show, what is it, 70 percent of Americans favor going after him?

JENNINGS: Well, it sort of depends a little bit, doesn't it, on how the question is asked and whether the complexities...

KING: Would you go after him if you were going to lose 5,000 people?

JENNINGS: Precisely. The trouble with polling, as we both know, is they polls don't always ask the complex questions. And when they do, people answer in different forms.

KING: The general coverage of the war in Afghanistan and the Pentagon and many...

JENNINGS: I apologize. Can I just say one thing...

KING: Sure. We're going to cover any base you want.

JENNINGS: No, I was just going to point -- I thought you were going to leave the Middle East. I was interested to see that our audiences over the last several weeks -- we've led with the Middle East every night, every night, every night. And it is not an issue which I think necessarily is of huge interest to people in many parts of the country. Certainly big issue on the coast, not always a big issue everywhere in the country.

But what is at stake in many ways now I think is American leadership in a part of the world which is crucial in many, many ways to Americans. And I think one of the reasons people are so interested, are so engaged is because they sense that what's at issue here is American leadership in a war between the Israelis and Palestinians, which may yet get out of control, and have a wider potential.

KING: All right. And to those people who have little interest, what happens if it gets out of control? What if they're saying, hey, it's a small part of the world. I know it's oil but...

JENNINGS: Well, I think there are two things, even in the post- Cold War period -- it has to do with strategic balance in the world, the United States strategic authority, and of course it has to do with oil, and oil supplies. And as long as we all continue to live the way we do, oil from the Middle East, though not a huge percentage of Middle East oil comes to in the United States; we actually only get about 10 percent of our oil directly from the Middle East -- but it goes to all of our allies.

But if you take a country like Japan, you know, in a pretty perilous economic situation over the last year or so, it gets 90 percent of its oil from outside the country, 90-some-odd percent of its oil from outside the country.


JENNINGS: So the disruption in the Middle East begins to disrupt the international economy, begins to disrupt the strategic balance, tests the United States, which is now the last -- the only global superpower, which in many ways lots of people in the world are waiting or lying in wait to make a mistake anyway, and its oil, not to mention the sort of general humanity if this war were to spread to Syria and to Lebanon and to Iraq and to the Persian Gulf. Yeah, I think it's one of the reasons we should stay engaged.

KING: Before I ask about Afghanistan, a little chronology. Where were you on September 11? We haven't seen you since May.

JENNINGS: I was this -- I was 10 feet from the news desk. I was in the newsroom.

KING: That early in the morning?

JENNINGS: Sure, that's not early for me.

KING: You're in there that early?

JENNINGS: Sure. Yes.

KING: And what happened?

JENNINGS: Yes, I was in the newsroom. And -- the first plane hit the building. And under...

KING: How did you know it?

JENNINGS: Actually, somebody said a plane has hit a building. And I had no idea what was going on. But under normal circumstances, when something like that happens, I would go and sit at the anchor chair. And so I did, I sat down. I was there for 19 hours the first day.

KING: Remember initial reaction, both having to go on the air and report this horrific scene?

JENNINGS: Well, when I first went on the air, like a lot of us, you know, we were in the middle of "Good Morning America," and Charlie and Diane were on the air. And we didn't really know what had happened until the second plane hit. And then the full horror of this began to unravel.

I think in many ways that people are always keen to know what our own personal feelings were at the time. I really think in some respects that people like us at moments like that are protected somewhat from having emotional reactions, because you're so focused and you're working so hard.

KING: Does it set in later?

JENNINGS: Yes, but in that week, you know, it set in, it came and went. It came and went. For me, there was one very tough moment in the middle of the day. I turned around an and on the desk behind me there was a message from my children, just saying they'd called. My son is in school in California, my daughter in school in Massachusetts. And I just lost it. In fact, I even lose it sometimes telling the story. And I turn around to the audience and said, "now we've all got to talk to our children, we must talk, you must call your children."

And that was the only moment that I just though, hey, get it together, Jennings. You're losing it here.

KING: What did you go through with the anthrax thing?

JENNINGS: Well, I'm fairly calm for the most part, under the most -- the tenser the circumstance, the calmer I tend to be. I'm hysterical most of the time, normal human behavior, and I'm a devout coward in combat.

KING: Good thinking.

JENNINGS: I'm a devout coward in combat. I've watched some of the reporters in the Middle East this week and some of the cameramen -- I have to tell you -- you know a reporter can always and some of them sadly often do stay behind the wall. Cameraman always has to step out into the alley to take the picture.

My rule always was, if you're not going to go somewhere, then the cameraman doesn't have to go somewhere. Now, if that strong cameraman were pulling me along in the circumstances I was never keen on -- but God, it doesn't matter who they work for, whether they work for you and you've had terrific guy in Ramallah, a terrific guy in Ramallah, whether it's working for you or for us or whoever they work for, the bravery of these people, to go out and just even test -- you go into Bethlehem and do just a test, you know how the Israelis are going to react. The Israelis have decided this is a closed area, they don't want you to know what's going on in there, so they're going to give you a bad time anyway.

KING: Anthrax didn't scare you?

JENNINGS: I'm sorry. No, anthrax -- I apologize. I just wanted to pay that compliment. We were the third -- remember the first it was the newspaper in Florida, then there was...

KING: Brokaw.

JENNINGS: No -- NBC, Brokaw, and then it was us. And by the time it got to us, the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and the city were beginning to get their act a little bit together. So when we realized, you know, this was the child of one of our producers who got sick. We have a little mailroom on our "World News Tonight" floor, got sick and nobody knew what it was. Then the anthrax came along and the child was tested for anthrax.

So it was clear that we'd had anthrax, or we thought there'd been anthrax on the floor. Well, the FBI and the CDC and the mayor -- man, the mayor was everywhere, and the chief of police (UNINTELLIGIBLE) came in. We had all seen it going on elsewhere. They had their act together. And we were fairly calm under those circumstances.

KING: We'll be back with more from Peter Jennings, our guest for the full hour. Don't go away.


JENNINGS (on camera): We set out from New York on Friday for Egypt where we thought Vice President Cheney and Yasser Arafat were going to meet. Well, they didn't.

(voice-over): So we had a little time to wander through Cairo, which is the most influential capital in the Arab world. What people think here about Israel and the United States is very important. At one of the oldest coffee houses here, we sat down with a group of university students.

(on camera): You think the United States is against Islam?

(voice-over): They all thought yes, and they all think the U.S. takes the Israelis' side. A lot of young Egyptians admire the American way of life. And many wish to go to the states. But they think the U.S. doesn't respect their point of view.



KING: We're back with Peter Jennings. I was going to touch on earlier, does the Pentagon control you more and more with regard to Afghanistan? Is it tough to get in...

JENNINGS: Actually, I haven't been to Afghanistan for a very long period of time. And I haven't heard our reporters, David Wright, who is now there reporting...

KING: There were complaints.

JENNINGS: Huge complaints. But they haven't complained in the last week or so. But because it's a little easier, though somewhat dangerous still to move around in Afghanistan as well. But there's no question that the administration and the Pentagon at the beginning of the campaign against Afghanistan did not wish the press looking over its shoulder or even participating in a lot of missions.

KING: And do you understand that?

JENNINGS: I understand it. Do I understand it -- look, I take it as their role to get past us and deal as directly as they can with the American people. So that the American people, from their point of view, hear only what they have to say.

But I think in a democracy such as we enjoy, it is the role and the right and I would add the requirement and the benefits to the public of the press to be there to see what's really happening. You know, I heard the secretary general of the United Nations today sort of anxious about what we will discover in the occupied territories once the Israelis withdraw.

In Afghanistan, as time goes on, we learn things that turned out not quite to be as the Pentagon has put them to us. But I accept that we have an adversarial role. I worked hard -- as a lot of other sort of old-time reporters have -- to try to have a better historic relationship between the military and the press. We see a lot of military officers who come to the office. We talk to a lot of these commissions and things. But in this current campaign, the administration simply believed that they could do without the press seeing what they were doing.

KING: When they say, this is war, this is life and death, how do you respond?

JENNINGS: Not any more differently than I would if it were walking in the sun, to be perfectly honest. Because while there are irresponsible reporters, as there are irresponsible television repairmen and irresponsible bureaucrats and irresponsible spokesmen for government, the history of the relationship in this country between the military and the press has been sober and responsible and very often cooperative.

And that the public, all of us, I'm not talking about those folks out there. I'm talking about me when I sit down and watch television, I wish to know that there is an agency of society or an agent of society out there, that they're a function of an institution of society out there keeping a watchful eye on my government. And I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing for all of us in a democracy to expect.

KING: How about your network. Were you very concerned over the fracas over the quest to get Letterman and the possibility of dropping "Nightline."

JENNINGS: Nice the way you slipped that one in.

KING: Yes. Eased it through.

JENNINGS: To be honest, I thought it was a pretty reasonable thing for ABC to want David Letterman. I happen to think he's a huge talent. Also think Ted Koppel's a huge talent. And he and I've been there for a long time. I think the network has been very open and acknowledged that it handled it very badly. I'm very glad to see Bob Eiger and Michael Eisner come along now and say -- and Ted Koppel -- that things have sorted themselves out. I think everybody was a bit sad the way it happened.

KING: What would have happened if Letterman had come to ABC? Would there have been a kind of revolt in the news department? This is hypothetical, of course.

JENNINGS: Which is why, every time we ask a politician a hypothetical question they ask, this is hypothetical. So I'm going to beg the hypothetical response here. I think that there's no -- I've been in this news division a long time. And so has Ted. We all feel very strongly about trying -- continuing to do a good, responsible job for the public. A lot of people still watch us, you know. But when you compare the network to cable, there's just no comparison in terms of the numbers of Americans that watch the networks. Sure we've lost audience, but it's still...

KING: Are you concerned that Disney may be less interested in news than the other big operators, the AOLs, the CBSs.

JENNINGS: No, no, I'm not, to be perfectly honest. I remember when Michael Eisner first came to the company. On the first day he made a speech to the Disney board, and I think it was -- I forget -- the board of somebody else, and I kept it because he spoke about the need to have a free and responsible and vigorous press in a free society.

And I still think he -- I still think -- not only do I think still think he believes that, I have no reason in my own daily experience to think he doesn't believe it. And Bob Eiger, who is now the head of Disney, who I saw just a day ago, you know, is an old ABC man who I think believes we make the news better, not worse. We don't always do a great job, by the way. We have messed up lots of times and sometimes we do dumb things, all of us, dare I say. But I've never seen anything in our show -- "Nightline," an issue, I don't want to ignore it altogether, in which they wanted the close down the evening news or cut back on the documentaries I do.

KING: What did you make of the Bernard Goldberg book that there's bias rampant through the three major networks?

JENNINGS: I think Bernie's a good reporter and I've said this many times. I think CBS lost a good reporter. It took him a heck of a long time to make a couple of really interesting points. And he didn't get it all right. He, unfortunately, as we sometimes all of us do, tell half a story to make a point and realize subsequently that the other half of the story makes a slightly different story.

KING: Have you seen cases of, in your opinion, bias?

JENNINGS: Well, I think bias in the generic sense exists all the time.

KING: The story you chose first tonight was a decision you made -- you made a decision to run the story tonight, right?


KING: Over the second story. That was a bias.

JENNINGS: In the broad sense bias. We all bring baggage to the table depending on where we've been, who we are, what color we are, how old we are yes...

KING: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tonight who's not?

JENNINGS: Yes, somebody gets you. But most of the time, most of the time, I really think that responsible journalists, which I hope I'm counted as one, leave our bias at the side of the table. Now, it is true that historically in the media it has been more of a liberal persuasion for many years. It has taken us a long time, too long in my view, to have vigorous conservative voices heard as widely in the media as they now are. So I think, yes, on occasion there is a liberal instinct in the media which we need to keep our eye on, if you will.

KING: Are there some conservative instincts in the media?

JENNINGS: Yes, but I think this is very...

KING: I mean, a bias anywhere.

JENNINGS: Oh, I just sense you wanting to talk about the other cable channel.

KING: No, no, no. I don't mean just the other -- talk radio is 90 percent conservative.

JENNINGS: Yes, in fact a friend of mine who is a wonderful conservative columnist, John Leo, who writes for "U.S. News and World Report" and the "Daily News" in New York makes the point that if you look around there are not as many vigorous liberal commentators in the country today, and there are not as many vigorous liberal exponents on talk radio.

You should also remember, I think, that for all of the conservative talk on the radio, these are not always huge audiences that people are talking to. But whatever it is -- I have to tell you, I feel very strongly about this. Remember, I worked in the Middle East where there's not a free press. I worked behind the iron curtain for a long time, there was no free press. I worked in Africa where the leaders of the government decided what would be said on the air.

I was in Cairo the other day -- I'm digressing -- I was in Cairo the other day, something came along called the "Egyptian Gazette," the English language newspaper that has been published for the visiting tourists ever since I first went there in like 1960-something. It is a disgrace. And I was so angry, I was so angry. God, guys, we've got the Internet. Could you at least publish an uncensored paper in this huge, vastly interesting country, which is part of the cradle of civilization.

KING: Peter Jennings. We'll be back with more. Don't go away.


KING: We're back with Peter Jennings. Any concerns about national security and civil liberties?

JENNINGS: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. And yet again I understand the times and the moment and the vulnerability that we feel. We're talking earlier about the Israeli vulnerability. We should also talk about Palestinian vulnerability, too, because they feel naked in their community with the full onslaught of the American -- of the Israeli military.

But we feel vulnerable here, too. So I think it is understandable that people at this moment are less concerned with the precision of protecting everybody's civil rights. But I believe that in the long term, and I think I'm deeply opposed to people being locked up for long periods of time without charge. And it is interesting to watch the administration currently struggle with who this other young American they've got. You know, how do they try him and the consequences.

KING: Can't try him militarily, because he's not in the military.

JENNINGS: It goes to show you that law and the rule of law end up making these things quite complicated. And in time, I hope that we will all -- I don't think this is a left wing, right wing issue at all. I think the overwhelming majority of Americans wish us to live according to the laws of the land that were laid down by the founders.

KING: What do you make of this Catholic church turmoil?

JENNINGS: We're having a visitation, I think, of Bishops at ABC this week to complain about the broadcast that I just did.

KING: Oh? Over?

JENNINGS: The reason I came back from the Middle East is I did a big special on the Catholic church. And my boss was great and he says they can come in and come complain. But I reminded him as I said on the broadcast, the most vigorous complaining from the Catholics come from profoundly angry Catholics who feel betrayed by their church.

I don't think we've seen the end of it. In some respects, the most interesting dimension of this immediate moment is what's going to happen to Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, as to whether or not he'll offer his resignation and how the Vatican will deal with this. I think we sometimes forget that we may in the United States -- Catholics in the United States of which I am not one, may not be as important to the Vatican as American Catholics think they are. They represent only 6 percent of the Catholic population in the world. But I think we are still waiting to see how the Vatican responds to this.

KING: What are the bishops complaining about vis-a-vis your program?

JENNINGS: You know there is always somebody thinking we did not get it precisely right. It is important, as you well know and as I've learned over the years, you have to listen to people who don't think you've got it right. If they come and convince you, then you have to tell the audience that you wish to rectify the situation.

KING: An extraordinary story.

JENNINGS: I think it is an amazing story. We've covered religion a lot. I've just come back from South Carolina, where I was working over the weekend, was a church on every street corner -- by the way, I had a wonderful, wonderful time. People were really great. You know we're doing this project "In Search Of America. Todd Brewster (ph) and I are doing another book, another series.

KING: When is that coming?

JENNINGS: Right after Labor day.

KING: You'll be back.

JENNINGS: If you'll invite me back, I'll be honored to come back. But I realized again being in Aiken, we're discovering the notions of the founders about religion. And they're still arguing in a very vigorous way down there, creationism versus evolution, as they did in the scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. It is amazing how the -- it is the long line of the continuum of American history.

I realized how exciting religion is and why I'm glad we really cover it at ABC in a vigorous way, because it intersects with so many aspects of our life. So the Catholic church, which is a profoundly sad story for Catholics, but is also a story of betrayal and trust and honor and responsibility for people of all faiths.

KING: And another story of betrayal and trust and responsibility.

JENNINGS: Well, I can't guess.

KING: Enron. Arthur Andersen. Faith in the corporate structure.

JENNINGS: Yes. And a little thing we're doing on the broadcast tonight at this moment about -- at this time of great patriotism about other corporations including some who were actually working for the IRS moving out of the country in order to avoid taxes.

I realize it's all perfectly legal, but it doesn't seem to be particularly patriotic. And when we see brokerage houses on Wall Street deliberately misleading their clients -- I don't wonder, you know, we're not revolution prone, I think, in America anymore, but I don't know why people sometimes don't take to the streets in more vigorous ways than they do.

KING: We'll be back with our remaining moments with Peter Jennings. Conan O'Brien is with us tomorrow night. Don't go away.



ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, this is "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings. Reporting tonight from Georgia.

JENNINGS: Good evening, everyone. We are in Atlanta tonight to simply hear what people are thinking about the country and their own region.

The new mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, has been on the job for a month.

Good evening, everyone, we're in South Florida tonight to hear what it is that Miami has on its mind. This is one very vibrant city.


KING: Pretty good editors at CNN, huh?

JENNINGS: Yeah, gee, what, three cities in one...

KING: What's the point here?

JENNINGS: The one thing I -- listen, I love about my job is I love that. After 9/11 -- shortly after 9/11 -- not shortly, but after a while, I felt it was really important to get away from here, from New York City and Washington and get out in the country and see what people thought. So I went to Colorado, I went to Texas and I went to California. And it was really invigorating and very revealing to see how people in other parts of the country felt about 9/11.

So I went back on a subsequent trip. I went to Detroit, Atlanta and Miami. And I held town meetings in each of these places. And now at the beginning of May, I'm going to go out again. I'm going to go to Minneapolis, and I'm going to go to Seattle, and I'm going to go to Cleveland -- no -- I think, yeah, Cleveland.

KING: Who picks the places you go?

JENNINGS: Well, I wanted to do it geographically. And this course is a tremendous help to me also in the search for America project for the fall. But it is so good for, quote, "the anchorperson," who normally belongs in the home office, because everything reports to the home office and you're trying to collate all that stuff. But to get out on the road is to just sometimes alter your perspective altogether. It's really great.

KING: This is a very general question, but what surprises you the most when you go out?

JENNINGS: Several things. It's a little bit of what we were talking about the Middle East. I find it hard not ever to engage people in conversation about the rest of the world. We are, I think, in the United States by nature conservative about the rest of the world. After all, the nation was founded on the precepts of being a new and different place, to be left alone.

But -- and it's still true in many ways. But I find Americans very easy to engage on the whole subject of globalism. They love to talk about the media, because they're really very often teed off us about something or the other, often with some justification. And it gives me a perspective to hear people talk about their lives in terms of the American ideals.

And that I always find -- and people -- you know, Americans are very -- I know of no more -- listen, one of the reasons it is, whatever you call it, the shining city on the hill, one of the reasons 200-some-odd years later that the ideas of the founders are still alive and well, as we discovered, is because Americans are open, idealistic people who believe that human endeavor will accomplish almost anything in life.

KING: We got a minute left. Back to where we began. Do you see any light at the end of this Mideast tunnel?

JENNINGS: Yes, and I think it's probably a bit corny of me to say it this way, but anybody I think who has been attached to the Middle East over all these years cannot -- never seems to lose a kernel of hope. I was listening to Tom Friedman at "The New York Times" who just won a Pulitzer Prize again for his reporting, whom I admire a lot. He and I agree I think on the notion that the United States has to be vigorously involved, including perhaps putting troops on the ground through a very difficult Israeli-Palestinian situation.

But I believe in time the Israelis and the Palestinians will live if -- together, though for a long period of time uneasily.

KING: Always great seeing you.

JENNINGS: Nice to see you. KING: Peter Jennings. What can you say?

Tomorrow night, Conan O'Brien, and next an old friend of Peter, the host of "Newsnight." Aaron Brown right here in New York. Good night.




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