Having kept quiet for 14 years, a former ABC News correspondent has gone public for the first time with allegations that network anchorman Peter Jennings manipulated news scripts during the 1980s in order to praise the Marxist-backed Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Peter Collins, a newsman with over 30 years experience, including stints with Voice of America, the BBC, CBS News and CNN, recently walked away from the news industry and has "no compunction about telling [my story] now."
In an exclusive interview with CNSNews.com, Collins alleged that Jennings personally dictated changes in a Collins television script in order to praise the Sandinista government for its "new, unselfish society," for successfully reducing illiteracy and "launch[ing] the biggest land reform in Central America."
Collins covered Central America for ABCs "World News Tonight" and "Nightline" from 1982 until 1991 and having recently retired from journalism, Collins said he now feels "liberated."
Repeated attempts to obtain a reaction on Collins allegations from ABC News were not successful. ABC News publicist Cathie Levine told CNSNews.com that neither Jennings nor the network had any comment.
The pro-Marxist spin at ABC News
According to Collins, Jennings "took a piece that I had written about the 10th anniversary of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua [in 1989] and first asked his producer to correct it for me and then he himself called me up in Managua and essentially dictated to me what I should say."
"Basically what Mr. Jennings wanted was for me to make a favorable pronouncement about the 10 years of the Sandinista revolution and he called me up, massaged my script in a way that I no longer recognized it," Collins said.
A partial transcript of Collins July 19th, 1989 segment on "World News Tonight" includes the following:
"The Sandinistas brought with them Marxist ideas about spreading wealth and creating a new, unselfish society. And in the first few years, they did manage to reduce illiteracy, the infant death rate and launched the biggest land reform in Central America. But the Reagan administration saw the Sandinistas as a threat and forced them into a war with the U.S.-backed Contras."
The Reagan Administration had battled Democrats in Congress throughout the 1980s in attempting to help the rebel Contras, with varying degrees of success. The Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, ruled Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990, when they were voted out of office.
Asked why he believed Jennings wanted his script changed to reflect a more positive spin about the Sandinista government, Collins was unequivocal.
"Because I presume that Peter Jennings felt that the Sandinista regime, which was a communist regime-no questions about it-were mere benign agrarian reformers … [Jennings] was a believer, was and is," Collins explained.
Not just ABC News
Collins, who served as a CNN correspondent in Baghdad in 1993, also criticized CNNs chief news executive Eason Jordan following Jordans confession that he had withheld from viewers numerous details of Saddam Husseins atrocities over the last ten years in order to protect news sources and maintain access in Iraq.
Collins resigned from CNN after growing uncomfortable with the way CNN was reporting from Baghdad and Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Collins wrote an op/ed in the Washington Times in April detailing how he was pressured to read what he calls "Saddam Husseins propaganda" on the air as part of CNNs effort to obtain an exclusive interview with the Iraqi dictator.
Other news organizations are guilty of similar tactics, according to Collins. "CNN is only the most egregious violator of this principle that you ought not to get too close to the regimes youre covering," Collins said.
"I think a number of reporters and organizations went soft on the Sandinista regime in order to facilitate their access or out of conviction," Collins said.
CNN spokesman Matt Furman would not address specific questions relating to Collins allegations, but told CNSNews.com that CNN "disputes both the facts and the implications of [Collins] op/ed."
Against the wishes of Peter Jennings
During his days at ABC News, Collins claimed he and Jennings had recurring conflicts.
"I had dozens of run-ins with [Jennings] directly-several with him being the 800-pound gorilla on the ABC News editorial staff," Collins said. "My resistance to him personally cost me my job at ABC eventually."
Collins also revealed that fresh off signing a new multi-year contract in the mid 1980s, a confident Jennings warned him that there were going to be changes in the newsroom.
"Jennings remarked that he [had] just won a new contract and as a consequence of that, he said, nodding at [ABC News executive producer] Bill Lord, there is going to be a few changes around here. Within two or three months Bill Lord was out as executive producer, and Paul Friedman was in," Collins said.
Prior to working with Jennings, Lord had served as the executive producer of ABCs "Nightline." Friedman, who also served as Jennings London producer prior to Jennings ascension to the position of lead anchor of World News Tonight, currently is an ABC News consultant.
Collins believes one of the factors that led Jennings to want to change executive producers was the networks coverage of the Sandinista/Contra conflict.
"Bill Lord had supported me in my coverage of Central America, against the wishes of Peter Jennings," Collins said. "[Jennings] was unhappy with my coverage because I tried to tell both sides of the story," he added.
A question of competence, praise for new media
Collins is speaking publicly about his years at ABC and CNN for the first time because he has walked away from the news business and no longer desires to work in the industry.
"I feel liberated," said Collins. "I dont have a job in the industry. I am not looking for a job in the industry. I am starting a little computer consulting company. That is what I am working on right now. I have no compunction about telling it now."
Collins believes the basic tenets of journalism have eroded over the years. "The first obligation of a reporter and a news organization is to get the facts straight and report both sides of the story," Collins said.
But he didnt see the issue as one that was charged politically. "I would not frame this whole question as just a left – right issue, but rather as a question of competence," Collins said.
Collins believes CNNs recent admission and his own experiences in Central America are merely "scratching at the surface" of what Collins regards as a long standing failure of the media to report accurately about despotic governments, particularly left-of-center authoritarian regimes.
"We can go as far back as Walter Duranty in (1930s) Moscow for the New York Times, Herbert Matthews in (1950s) Cuba for the New York Times-[how] those two writers tilted their coverage in ways when compared with the historical record was outrageous," Collins said.
But he credits a few key individuals and organizations with breaking the monopoly of the establishment news media.
"If it were not for for Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times, and Fox News-those organizations, entities, have finally managed to break the dam," Collins said. "Ph.D. pieces could be written about this subject, dozens of them."