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CyberAlert -- 07/19/1996 -- Jennings: The Dumbest Anchor?

Jennings: The Dumbest Anchor?

Two items today:

1) Yet again, during coverage of a live event, Peter Jennings is fooled by a fake eyewitness call. During live coverage Wednesday night of the TWA tragedy Jennings took seriously a fake caller, and even after it became clear the caller was not an eyewitness Jennings treated as accurate a description provided by the fake caller.

2) Conservative film critic Michael Medved will replace Mike Siegel as the 12 to 3pm talk host on KVI in Seattle.


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Back in 1994 as O.J. Simpson's Bronco parked in his Rockingham driveway following the freeway chase, Peter Jennings interviewed live an "eyewitness" who described details of what he could see inside the parked Bronco. Even with numerous clues that the caller was no where near Simpson's house (including the use of an obviously fake black accent and the utterance of a phrase used by Howard Stern listeners), Jennings never caught on. ABC Sports announcer Al Michaels had to point out afterwards that the caller was a fraud.
You'd think Jennings and his producers would improve their call screening techniques. Think again. At approximately 10:40pm Wednesday night (July 17) during live coverage of the explosion of TWA flight 800, Jennings was fooled again. As transcribed by MRC intern Jessica Anderson, here are some excerpts of what ABC aired:
Peter Jennings: "We're going to go to Dan Stevenson at the moment, who is an eyewitness as well. Mr. Stevenson."
Dan Stevenson: "Yes.
Jennings: "Can you tell us what you saw?"
Stevenson: "Oh, it's horrible, it's just a big wreck, it's a mess. I saw a big explosion. I was off-duty, of course, with my wife, and..."
Jennings: "You're an off-duty policeman?"
Stevenson: "Yes, I am."

"Stevenson" proceeded to answer questions from Jennings about what he saw. "Stevenson" talked about how he "dove into the water" and is "working side by side right now with various departments, and we're doing, we have helicopters, we're doing the best we can."
A few minutes later Jennings returned to "Stevenson," and here's the complete exchange:
Jennings: "I want to go back, if I may now, to Mr. Stevenson, who's the off-duty police officer. Can you add something, Mr. Stevenson?"
Stevenson: "All I know is that from what I saw and from what I've heard, it seems like the explosion itself occurred within the lower frame of the airplane, more towards, you know, the tail. It seems like that's where it derived from. And from what I've gathered and from what my off-duty and on-duty officers have said is that it looked like O.J. Simpson was driving the plane." [caller hangs up or is cut off]
Jennings: "Okay, we'll just forego that kind of remark, which, I must tell you, makes me, I shouldn't be, but makes me slightly suspicious about Mr. Stevenson, but I may be wrong, and if I am wrong and sound ungrateful, it is because in live television like this we have been burned before by eyewitnesses who turned out not to be eyewitnesses. And perhaps the most famous occasion, for us, at least, was during the inevitable parade that O.J. Simpson and the Los Angeles Police Department had around the freeways of Los Angeles at the time that, just before he was arrested."

Jennings next interviewed John Nance, ABC's aviation consultant. Despite the implausibility of being able to see physical details at dusk of a plane several miles away, and incredibly, even after the OJ line, Jennings was still holding out hope for the caller's credibility. Jennings forwarded as accurate what the obviously fake caller (now called Dennis instead of Dan) had said.
Jennings: "Well, Mr. Dennis Stevenson, who I may have unkindly been suspicious of, but if I am, again I apologize, was saying that one of the people that he had talked to believed the explosion occurred towards the rear of the aircraft. That tell you anything?"

Talk about putting unsubstantiated charges on the air. Just the kind of thing mainstream media people condemn talk radio for allegedly doing.

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Here's part of a short item that ran in the July 18 Washington Times:
"Film critic Michael Medved...is pulling up his California roots to move to Mercer Island, Washington, home of longtime friend and fellow Jewish conservative Rabbi Daniel Lapin. Mr. Medved, who co-hosts PBS TV's Sneak Previews series, has been offered the job of hosting the noon to 3pm slot on Seattle radio station KVI-AM, replacing controversial talk show host Mike Siegel."

-- Brent Baker

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