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JENNINGS ON THE HALF SHELL

Peter Jennings is sampling the famous crustaceans at Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans, gathering strength for the acceptance address he will give when he receives the Radio-Television News Directors’ Paul White Award at the organization’s annual powwow (see story, page 27).

He won’t be addressing it in his speech, but Jennings has given some thought to his new corporate masters, the Walt Disney Co., and what the new ownership will mean for the future of the news division. “In my current contract I’m guaranteed six primetime news specials,” says Jennings. “When my contract is up, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get that clause in it again. But it’s presumptuous to think that (Disney chairman) Michael Eisner, who started out at ABC about the same time I did, only thinks about the Walt Disney Co. as this vast entertainment empire. I think he understands that his company is part of the fabric of this country and shares its values. In part, in a democracy, that means independent news.”

Meanwhile, the “World News Tonight” anchor has prepped a speech critical of network news for too often letting healthy skepticism give way to cynicism. Jennings charges in the speech that political coverage is too often driven by “a need to anoint or condemn.” Moreover, he says that he and his network brethren “urge action until someone proposes change, and then we truth-squad so much that we contribute to the political paralysis.”

Jennings says the prospect of giving the speech to a group of news directors has made him nervous. Why? “These guys are the backbone of what we do,” he says. “It would be presumptuous for me to come down from New York and tell them what they should and shouldn’t do, and I worry about coming off that way.”

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