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Focusing America's Attention on Bosnia

Interview: Peter Jennings's passion about the war in the former Yugoslavia has earned the ABC News anchor kudos and criticism

FROM the beginning of the savage and confusing war that has torn apart the former Yugoslavia, Peter Jennings heard echoes of the Holocaust. They resonated in the so-called ''ethnic cleansing,'' the siege of cities, and the ghettoization of people based on their religion.

''I never wanted to look back at the Bosnia story five years or 10 years hence and have someone ask me: 'What did you do to try to prevent it or, more important, focus the world's attention on it...?''' says the ABC News anchor and senior editor.

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Over the past four years, ABC's ''World News Tonight'' has dedicated more time to the Bosnia story than other broadcast networks have. While the O.J. Simpson trial was the No. 1 news story on NBC and CBS in 1995, Bosnia topped the ticket at ABC. Mr. Jennings has also reported and anchored an hour-long prime-time special on the war in each of the past three years.

''There was definitely a personal commitment there,'' says Andrew Tyndall of ADT Research, a New York-based media analyst. ''In the days when there really was no political or diplomatic leadership on the issue, there were three leading national journalists that kept plugging away: Jennings, [The New York Times's] Anthony Lewis, and CNN's Christiane Amanpour.''

The coverage of Bosnia on all three broadcast networks and CNN has generally won high praise. That's unusual in a era when television news is routinely singled out, often rightfully, for focusing on the tawdry and sensational at the expense of the more serious and difficult stories.

''The coverage has been extensive and continuous..., especially for a story where the United States was not always involved either as a combatant or very much in the peace process,'' says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum, a New York-based media-studies center. ''In fact, I think the coverage has outdistanced public interest.''

Jennings's passion for the story has generated praise and criticism. Some claim he crossed the line, advocating intervention with indictments of the failures of world leaders to stem the bloodshed. But others see in his work the kind of dogged pursuit of the truth that is at the heart of quality journalism.

''In fact, I've invited [Jennings] to do a speech and to honor him at the Shorenstein Center in March, because I thought his work on Bosnia has been so exemplary,'' says Marvin Kalb, executive director of the media-studies center at Harvard University.

But to others, Jennings sacrificed the studious neutrality that has helped make him the country's leading news anchor.

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''Clearly, Peter Jennings has been nearly an advocate for involvement in Bosnia,'' says Larry Sabato, who teaches government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ''But I think it's unfair to say that it's just Jennings who's been biased.''

Professor Sabato says the ''bipartisan establishment'' in New York and Washington has strongly favored US involvement in Bosnia. ''They seem to regard the American public's rather strong opposition to that involvement as ignorant and isolationist.''

Jennings is well aware that he is out of step with much of the country on the Bosnia question. An ABC news poll on Nov. 27, the day President Clinton announced he was sending 20,000 American troops to Bosnia, found that 57 percent of Americans opposed the operation. But instead of arrogance, the schism has bred self-consciousness in Jennings.

''If you are at point X on an issue, and a large part of the country is at point Y,'' Jennings says sitting in a relaxed moment in his New York office, ''then I think you should be questioning whether you're necessarily in the right place. That doesn't mean you go with the flow, but there is reason to question yourself.''

That questioning, in part, prompted Jennings to focus on Bosnia in his hour-long TV documentaries. The specials allow him to do what he calls, ''edit-analysis,'' which is taking a point of view and trying to prove it.

The Bosnia special that aired in March 1994 illustrates how it works. In February, Jennings was in Sarajevo when a Serbian shell hit a crowded marketplace, killing 68 civilians. The scenes of carnage finally pushed the United Nations and NATO to act.

FRUSTRATED by the lack of international leadership before then, Jennings set out to prove his contention that world leaders stood by mutely while tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Within a month, he was on the air with an hour-long special entitled, ''While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy.''

The report opened with Jennings at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, in front of a wall of pictures of Hitler's victims. ''For genocide to happen,'' he said, ''you need only killers and victims - and those who stand by and let it happen.''

The documentary charged that the Bush administration purposefully ignored conclusive evidence of concentration camps in the former Yugoslavia in order to avoid any military entanglement. It pointed out the inconsistency between candidate Clinton's call for a strong response to the killing in the Balkans and his timid actions as commander in chief. Jennings ended by chiding American officials for their lack of leadership:

''When they looked at Bosnia,'' Jennings said, ''our leaders seemed to see only the risks of action. They ignored the risks of doing nothing. And while America watched, hundreds of thousands of people died in a particularly evil kind of war. The Bosnians paid a very high price, but so did those who stood by.''

It was strong stuff for any news operation and something few other TV journalists could do without encountering a barrage of criticism.

''I think Peter's been ... telling people what ought to be done,'' says Ed Fouhy, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, a media-research center in Washington. ''But I guess he's probably earned the right to do that by virtue of his seniority and the fact that he's covered an awful lot of foreign stories.''

While Jennings admits he's glad US troops are now in Bosnia and that the fighting, for the most part, has stopped, he hesitates when asked about the US-brokered peace plan. ''I'm not overly optimistic,'' he says. ''But I won't say 'anxious,' either.''

But he is determined that Americans still have every opportunity to understand the brutal and confusing war that could claim American lives. On Saturday at noon, he will host another hour-long special. This one is called ''Bosnia 101: Who Lives There, Who Died There, and Why We're There.''

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