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How objective, unbiased, and balanced were Peter Jennings and ABC News?
Did they disqualify themselves by their lack of objectivity?

Buddy Scott of © 2000 • ALLON PUBLISHING

In the ABC News Special, The Search for Jesus, Peter Jennings and the panel of scholars he chose to interview disputed the foundational facts of the Christian faith. (See page 2 to read some of the truths they attempted to discount.)

How did Jennings do that? Why did he do that? And what can we learn from that? Was Jennings objective or did he disqualify himself via his lack of objectivity? These are the questions that will be answered in this series of eight newspaper articles. My purpose will be to help my readers recover from any seeds of doubt that may have been planted.

The broadcast was not a news magazine or an opinion piece. It was clearly stated to be a special report by ABC News in which Peter Jennings, the reporter assigned to cover the story, was claiming professional objectivity.

The logo and the theme music of ABC News were presented, and the program was introduced with these words: "This is an ABC News Special." Both the Internet chat line and the discussion board were stated to be under the auspices of ABC News. Therefore, to be valid, their presentation had to be objective. It wasn't.

During the broadcast of The Search for Jesus, ABC ran a promo about its news department and Peter Jennings. In the house ad, Jennings said, "If people can come away from a half hour of World News Tonight feeling I know more and I understand more, that's a very gratifying feeling." My questions are: Why did ABC News have Jennings saying that during a show where he was offending so many Christians? And: Why did the American Broadcasting Company appreciate what a first-class reporter Jennings is while it depreciated the life and work of Jesus? What's that about? That was strange! According to ABC News, Jennings is most excellent; but Jesus is plagued with fabrications, embellishments, exaggerations, fictions, and lies.

The program began with Peter Jennings reading the story of the birth of Jesus in a very touching and moving manner, accented with beautiful music and attractive graphics. Then it went directly to an archeological excavation that had uncovered a rock where Mary supposedly rested when she was pregnant with Jesus. Officials there were preparing to designate it as a special place of spiritual significance and turn it into a tourist attraction. The site was presented as obviously a stretch of the imagination. Then the program insinuated the same flawed authenticity could be true for other sacred places commemorating the life of Jesus, including the Church of the Nativity. And then the interviews began. And within a few minutes of having read the Christmas story so meaningfully, Jennings had planted seeds of doubt about its most treasured elements.

Readers please understand that planting seeds of doubt is all that is necessary to greatly injure the reputation of the Christian faith in the hearts of millions of people. If Jesus wasn't born of a virgin, for example, it follows that more than likely other treasured truths in the Bible are wrong. Allowing dissection removes the rudder from our lifeboat and sets us adrift in the sea of pell-mell opinions. We can't risk our souls and those of our family members and friends to opinions.

In The Search for Jesus, Jennings and ABC News presented themselves as the sole sorters of truth and authenticity. Jennings said, "We suspected that reliable resources were hard to come by, and sometimes they were." And in another place, "We discovered how difficult it would be for a journalist to get the story right." His statements presume that they are qualified to authenticate resources, uncover the real story, and get it right.

Did Jennings and ABC News find reliable resources that can provide the real story and get it right? A contributor to the discussion board comments on this subject: "I actually laughed out loud when I realized how many times the people being interviewed said, 'I think' or 'Perhaps it was such and such.'" Other phrases used by the "reliable" resources were: "I have a hunch," "my hunch is," "probably," "maybe," "I think," "I don't think," "apparently," "in all likelihood," "plausibility," and "scholars believe that." Did Jennings select scholars who are reliable resources? The words from their own lips contradict Jennings's presumption that they are reliable resources. How could Jennings "get the story right" with uncertain scholars?

N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, clearly admits on the broadcast that conclusions drawn by historians may or may not be valid:

People are looking for mathematical or scientific proof. In history, that doesn't exist. What we are looking for is likelihood, possibility, plausibility, stuff like that. And in history, that is as far as you get, that's as good as it gets--I know as a historian that history is full of things which were improbable at the time, and yet, my goodness, they happened.

In spite of the lack of precision among the scholars, I counted more than 20 times that Jennings and his scholars directly disputed the New Testament Gospels during The Search for Jesus.

Jennings labeled scholars he didn't include as conventional scholars. He labeled the millions of Christians he knew would disagree with him as literalists. (His literalists label is inaccurate since many nonliteralist Christians believe what Jennings doubted.) Conventional scholars, literalists, and nonliteralists who believe the basic truths of Scripture are the scholars and people Jennings knew were opposite his view. Therefore, the way for Jennings and ABC News to have been professionally objective would have been to include interviews of them about the specific historical and theological facts being considered (and questioned). But they were completely excluded.

Yet Jennings and ABC News skillfully presented the impression that he included them. How did they do that?

They filmed Jennings with a beautiful Pentecostal choir during a casual time. They showed the choir members as they performed in Israel and as they presented a dramatic passion play at their church in the United States. They filmed Jennings interviewing a Baptist archeologist and other conventional scholars and literalists. Except Jennings didn't ask any of those resources anything of substance. They were only used to add inspiration and general information. He did not allow them to have any input on the specific questions that he asked the unconventional scholars. How else could he have reported and let stand, without sufficient refutation, opinions like the following?

  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are unreliable and contradictory sources for facts about the history of Jesus. They are blighted with myth, inaccuracies, and embellishments. Jennings said: "Scholars told us early on that they don't take everything they read in the New Testament literally because the New Testament has four different and sometimes contradictory versions of Jesus' life. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John...there is no reliable evidence about who the authors actually were. It is pretty much agreed that they were not eyewitnesses. In fact the Gospels were probably written 40 to 100 years after Jesus' death." (I can't help but ask a tongue-in-cheek question: Jennings discounted what was written 40 years after Jesus' death in favor of what was assumed 2,000 years later? Note: In senior adults, their long-term memory often improves with age as their short-term memory declines with age, especially for outstanding events. Reader, can you well remember a significant emotional event that occurred in your life 40 years ago? Yes, and with detail. And what if that significant emotional event had been Jesus? Could you remember the magnificent miracles, events, and teaching of His life in detail? Of course. And younger people would be seeking you out to again hear every detail of the wonderful story of Jesus.)

  • The Gospel writers of the New Testament were scheming and manipulative authors who were low enough to purposefully lace their writings with fiction and fraud. Jennings and his scholars repeatedly said, in essence, that the Gospels are fraudulent writings designed to convince the public that Jesus was someone He wasn't: God incarnated into human flesh. Jennings and his scholars said that the Gospel writers were familiar with the Old Testament requirements that Jesus had to fulfill to be the Messiah, and they misled humankind by writing falsehoods and embellishments into their Gospels to qualify Jesus to be the Messiah. According to Jennings and his scholars, the Christian faith was built on the falsehoods and embellishments of authors who were dishonest and untrustworthy. (Their accusations were appalling and bizarre. Yet they were said with such smoothness that many viewers didn't awaken to their off-the-scale seismic significance. A person who did comprehend the significance, said to me, "I wonder how Jennings and those he interviewed will feel when Jesus plays The Search for Jesus at their Judgment." This writer wishes them no ill, and I hope they will make restitution before the dead and great stand before God to be judged.)

  • Jesus may not have been born in Bethlehem. Marcus Borg said, "In all likelihood, He was born in Nazareth, and not in Bethlehem--He was known as Jesus of Nazareth." Jennings mused, "But if Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, why would the Gospel writers say that He was?" He answered his own question by suggesting that it was a fabrication of New Testament writers to satisfy Old Testament prophecies in order to qualify Jesus to be the Messiah. Jennings said, "Gospel writers believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and the Old Testament said that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem." After injecting doubt about the honesty of the Gospel writers, Jennings interviewed two other scholars who believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

  • There was no star in the East. One of Jennings's scholars, Marcus Borg, said, "It was purely legendary and symbolic."

  • No angels announced the birth of Jesus, no wise men came, and no gifts were given. Another of Jennings's scholars, Jerome Murphy O'Conner, said, "I don't think that it was angels (that were seen by the shepherds), and I don't think there were three wise men."

  • Mary was not a virgin. Jesus was probably the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier. Jennings said, "Perhaps a Roman soldier made Mary pregnant--Mary could well have been a teenager, raising a child by herself--Here are the only things we can say with some certainty about the birth of Jesus: He was born Jewish at a time of great political tension."

  • Jesus was not tempted by the devil in the wilderness. He was merely hallucinating from hunger. Jennings said, "The Gospel stories also say that Jesus was tempted by the devil." Marcus Borg added, "And we also know that fasting brings about alterations in consciousness." Jennings followed with, "Which is as speculative as historians want to get when discussing the meeting with the devil." The subject was abruptly dropped.

  • The Holy Spirit did not descend upon Jesus at His baptism and there was no voice from heaven that said, "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased." Jennings said, "The Gospel According to Mark, which was probably the first one written, makes no mention of others hearing the voice or seeing the Holy Spirit."

  • Jesus didn't perform the miracles in which He commanded nature...walking on the water, turning water into wine, and feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Peter Jennings said, "Most scholars we talked to think these stories were invented by the Gospel writers as advertisements for Christianity in its early years. Christianity, after all, was competing for followers with Judaism and with Greek and Roman pagan religions."

  • Jesus did perform the miracles in which He healed diseases, but some miracles were less impressive since the "diseases" He "healed" were psychosomatic. Jennings said, "But many scholars do believe the Gospels when they say that as He moved from village to village preaching, Jesus also healed and drove demons out of people. In the first century, sick people were thought to be possessed by evil spirits."

  • If Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the palm branches were not brought out for Him. They were a normal part of the festivities. Claiming them for Him was probably another exaggeration of New Testament writers. Jesus was probably a minor figure who didn't command much attention in Jerusalem. Jennings said, "Apparently Jewish travelers always erupted in celebration when they arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. They may have been singing and shouting, but not necessarily for Jesus."

  • The crucifixion of Jesus may not have been an event that commanded a lot of attention. Jennings reported, "The stark truth is we don't know if more than a handful of people paid attention to Jesus' execution. There are scholars who believe that Jesus didn't generate very much enthusiasm in Jerusalem."

  • The authenticity of the Last Supper was brought into question. Jennings reported, "Historians differ about what happened at the Last Supper. Some people think the whole speech about His body and blood at that meal was added by the Gospel writers."

  • Jesus was not betrayed by Judas, a man whose name meant Jew. That "hoax" was likely added by New Testament writers as a scheme stimulate anti-Semitism, according to Robert Funk. He said that the story of Judas betraying Jesus was "probably a fiction because Judas looks to many of us like the representation of Judaism or the Jews as responsible for His death." Jennings asked him, "Do you believe that this was written into the Gospels in order to portray the Jews as having participated in His death?" Funk answered, "Yes."

  • The Jews did not have a significant role in the accusations and trials of Jesus. Jennings stated, "There is an intense debate whether Jesus was put on trial by Jewish priests as the Gospels indicated."

  • The Gospel stories are wrong about why Jesus was condemned. Jennings surmised, "So Jesus was executed not for blasphemy as the Gospels indicate, but as a political revolutionary, a threat to the established political and social order."

  • There was no resurrection because Jesus wasn't buried. John Dominic Crossan said, "The function was to leave the body on the cross for the carrion crows and the prowling dogs." Or because the resurrection idea was stolen from pagan religions. Marvin Meyer said, "And one of the things I believe early Christians did is that they took the model of the Mystery religions, they took that story and retold that story as the story of Jesus." Or the resurrection actually did occur. N. T. Wright said, "I simply cannot explain why Christianity began without it."

In anticipation of the ABC News Special, Mary Nabor (© June 2000) wrote the following for Entertainment:

This Monday (June 26th at 9 PM, ET) will indeed be a sad day for responsible journalism and the reputation of respected news anchorman, Peter Jennings, when ABC airs "Peter Jennings Reports: The Search for Jesus." The flagrant dishonesty begins with the two-hour documentary's title. This show is no open, investigative search for truth.

In days gone by, when objectivity was the most sacred of all attributes of reporters, Peter Jennings was my favorite national TV reporter. I was impressed with his pleasant appearance, his smooth presentation, and the way his persona communicated trust.

Consequently, I encourage readers not to think that this series of articles is coming from someone who has never admired and respected the national TV news media. I am someone who has become reluctantly disillusioned with national news personalities and companies over a period of several years.

And to be open with you, after I wrote a couple of articles a few weeks ago about the bias of most TV network newscasters against Christians who are faithful to all of God's Word, I had wished that something would be broadcast that would confirm the articles to anyone who thought I was overstating the problem. And unfortunately, it came to pass with the broadcast of The Search for Jesus with Peter Jennings.

To be objective in his ABC News Special, Jennings would have had to interview conventional contemporary scholars in addition to the unconventional contemporary scholars he interviewed, and he would have had to allow them the opportunity to speak to the subjects on which only the unconventional scholars were allowed to speak.

And to be objective, Jennings would have to do similar news specials about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other religions; dumb-down the lives of the patriarchs and the lives of Muhammad, Buddha, and other religious leaders; and attempt to discredit the credibility of the Torah, the Koran, the Dharmas of Buddhism and related religions, and other religious writings. Will Peter Jennings do that?

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