Sunday, August 07, 2005

OBT: Peter Jennings

Peter Jennings, 1938 - 2005
Keith Olbermann, MSNBC, August 8, 2005 9:00 a.m. ET

NEW YORK -- The calm, seasoned, assuring voice has been stilled.

We may remember him for his work on 9/11, or for any of a dozen other crises, from Vietnam to the Munich Olympics to the Challenger disaster. But the real story of Peter Jennings is not to be found in a kaleidoscope of unconnected moments of history.

It is, instead, contained in literally a half century of perseverance, growth; even redemption: He was the only enduring anchorman to return to the desk from which he had been fired. He was the only of America’s great newscasters, to have come from another nation. He was the anchorman who, having concurred with his early critics that he was “simply unqualified,” went out and did something about it. He was a man of whom a colleague would say in the early 1980s - with pride and affection - “He is now as good as he used to think he was.”

But for much of his life, the question for Peter Jennings seemed to be: would he ever think himself as good as the man with whom he was seemingly forever in competition -- his own father. Charles Jennings was already Canada’s first famous radio newscaster (and would later become a symbol of the public service orientation of its national broadcasting service), when Peter Charles Archibald Ewart Jennings was born in 1938.

Son followed father - but haltingly. He’d had his own radio show at age 10, but dropped out of FREE VIDEO

• Jennings remembered
Aug. 8: Countdown pays tribute to ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings, 1938-2005.

high school, and drifted into working as a bank teller. Biographers disagree if the family was trying to give him a dose of reality, or if he was truly adrift in the mid-1950s. Regardless, how ever it came to pass, when he returned to broadcasting as a disc jockey - “P.J. the D.J.” - it was, in essence, starting at or near the bottom, the advantage of the Jennings “name” having been dissipated.

It would not be the last time he would overcome such an inauspicious career move.

Jennings’ music show happened to include reading the news. And he was so good at it, and so inspired by it, that by the mid-'60s, he was the CBC’s Parliamentary correspondent, and frequent anchor of its national newscasts, and of some of the first commercial network newscasts in Canada.

At the same time in America, meanwhile, ABC barely had a national newscast.

While Walter Cronkite at CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC set standards which the industry still strains to match, ABC was a revolving door of anchormen - 11 in the preceding five years alone. Its latest news president, Elmer Lower, desperately needed something, and thought that something would be found in the host of ABC’s latest new newscast - “Peter Jennings and the News.”

Even the confident Jennings could see the trap. He was 26 years old; he was Canadian; he was taking over a ship that wasn’t sinking - it had never left port. But, he deferred to the advice of a new colleague, the venerable Howard K. Smith. “It’s like being nominated for President,” Smith told him. “You can’t turn it down.”

To borrow the famous 19th Century phrase of General Sherman, Jennings was not elected and he did not serve. He would not change his Canadian inflections and pronunciations. Schedule became “shedule” and Lieutenant, “lieftenant.” Having not grown up versed in American history, when time came to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the end of the Civil War, he butchered the word “Appomattox.”

And if he would not change the way he talked, he could not change the way he looked. Critics - and, behind his back, colleagues - called him “Anchorboy” and “Peter Pretty.” “We could never improve his image,” said his boss, Lower. “Not as long as he looked that young.”

At the end of 1967, from the top of his profession - perhaps the most-publicized, most-scrutinized anchor appointment in American television before or since, he was out -- out in an industry that rarely offers second chances. He was not yet 30 years old. Once again, as he had as a teenager, he would have to try to climb the hill again, from nearly all the way at its bottom.

But to Jennings, his reporting experience in Canada, and of the American Civil Rights movement, had not been a mere stepping stone. There was a dimension to actually reporting the news that even his famous father had not tasted. He enthusiastically accepted ABC’s offer to become an international correspondent, thriving in Vietnam, in Rome, in the Middle East.

It was as ABC’s Beirut correspondent that he was offered what was to be a break from the chaos of the Middle East -- a chance to do feature news reporting at the Olympic games. These were the 1972 Olympic games, in Munich - the ones which introduced terrorism to the world stage. Crouched in hiding outside the infamous Building 31, Jennings was the world’s eyes and ears as the Black September terrorists took hostage, and ultimately murdered, 11 members of the Israeli team.

There he cemented his reputation. No “Peter Pretty” now, but a familiar, analytical, calm but not dispassionate translator of world events to an American audience.

It earned him, another chance at the anchor desk -- on ABC’s embryonic challenge to the “Today” show -- a program called “A.M. America” -- five minutes of news, from Washington. But if he had aspirations of returning to the evening news, they were soon dashed. He was quickly back in Europe, and a new man was in charge of ABC News -- a man who would proclaim: “I think the old concept of the anchor position is outdated and outmoded.”

The man was named Roone Arledge.

With mercurial speed, Arledge pronounced the anchorman dead, then tried to hire Robert MacNeil away from PBS, then whipped up a gaudy, crowded newscast with no less than three anchormen. Jennings was a part - but with Frank Reynolds based in Washington and Max Robinson based in Chicago, his London perch seemed merely a place from which to introduce the reports of other foreign correspondents. Meantime, Arledge, the man who had called the anchorman outdated, tried to hire away first Dan Rather from CBS, then Tom Brokaw from NBC.

Even when World News Tonight morphed back into a one-anchorman program, that one anchorman was not to be Peter Jennings -- it would be Frank Reynolds. Jennings, now not quite an anchor and no longer fully a correspondent, seemed a quaint appendage.

And then Frank Reynolds got sick. In a shock that in retrospect seemed to foretell Jennings’ own demise, Reynolds, thought to be recovering from persistent hepatitis, suddenly died in July, 1983. He had had multiple myeloma - a rare cancer - for four years. He had told almost no one.

Even then, Roone Arledge, who had bypassed Jennings for Reynolds, and who would have bypassed Jennings for Robert MacNeil, and who would have bypassed Jennings for Dan Rather, and who would have bypassed Jennings for Tom Brokaw, sought to bypass Jennings yet again. Ted Koppel, who had almost single-handedly established ABC’s news credentials with the still-novel “Nightline,” was offered the anchor job first.

But Koppel turned it down. And then, so too did a wary Peter Jennings. The scars of the 1965-67 experiment were deep. The satisfactions of reporting ran, perhaps, deeper. But now ABC had no other options - and neither did Jennings. At best, he was ABC’s sixth choice. He acquiesced.

And unexpectedly, the years abroad had not merely rid him of the “anchorboy” patina -- they had given him a unique perspective, and an intense work ethic. American history still did not flow naturally from him -- but world history did.

And so, when the Challenger shuttle exploded on January 28th, 1986, he could ad lib for five hours of special coverage. “The picture is now etched in our minds, but still horrifying,” he concluded, “The disastrous end of the 25th shuttle mission, the sudden death of seven astronauts, America once again reaching for the stars and this time -- for the first time, not making it.”

When the opportunity came to join the panel for the first presidential debate in 1988, he could compose hundreds of questions, domestic and international, and cull from them the dozen best.

When war broke out in Iraq in 1991, he could anchor most of ABC’s first special report -- 42 hours in length.

In 1993, his experiences at Munich and in the Middle East, could provide a sad, but compelling, context, for his coverage of the first attack on the World Trade Center.

Four years earlier, Peter Jennings had achieved a seemingly impossible milestone. He was the “newer rival” to Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. Yet he had occupied his anchor desk 16 years before either one of them. And he had been fired 14 years before either one of them had been hired. But somehow, in a career - a life - of perseverance, he had, in 1989, vaulted over them both, into first place in the audience ratings - the first time ABC had ever beaten CBS and NBC for a full year.

By the start of this year, the world that surrounded Peter Jennings was barely recognizable as the same world he had tried to cover from the ABC anchor chair in 1965. And so too was his craft. News had become intensely politicized. Even his Canadian birth became reason for criticism - no longer because he said “shedule” - but just because he wasn’t a native.

Cable abounded, and forecasts of the end of nightly network newscasts seemed as frequent as the newscasts themselves. And Peter Jennings was suddenly the last remaining mandarin. Perseverance had suddenly become survival -- Tom Brokaw retired in November, 2004. Dan Rather, in March, 2005. Unexpectedly, Jennings was the senior network news anchor - by a margin of 21 years.

But something was wrong. When the tsunami hit the nations of the Indian Ocean last December, this most international of national newscasters wasn’t there. When Pope John Paul II began his final journey, the only network anchorman who had once been a correspondent in Rome stayed in New York. It was severe bronchitis, he told ABC, and ABC told the country.

Then on April 5th -- four months ago last Friday -- he told the country something else. Something terrible. He had lung cancer. It was his intent, he said, forcing the words out with a physical strain that any broadcaster or singer recognized as a complete loss of breath, to return to the anchor chair “on the good days.” At ABC, there could be only optimism - no talk of a successor, not even a solo replacement, but rather a rotation, and, constantly, a reminder, right through to last Friday, that the newscast was “World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.”

It was, in the end, the kind of blow that the calm, seasoned, assuring voice had always softened for us, always relieved of its sharp edges and its tragedy -- the kind of mitigation with which the years abroad had gifted him. But the perseverance of 57 years in front of a microphone could not restore the calm, seasoned, assuring voice. There was now, it seemed, no one to soften and relieve this shock.

“He is now as good,” that ‘80s colleague had said, “as he used to think he was.” Those who sit in the chairs of his rival networks, or other chairs like them, know that all too well at this hour.

The calm, seasoned, assuring voice has been stilled.

And for now, at least, there are no others.

ABC News anchor Peter Jennings dies at 67
Canadian-born broadcaster announced he had lung cancer in April
The Associated Press, Updated: 12:11 a.m. ET Aug. 8, 2005

NEW YORK - Peter Jennings, the suave, Canadian-born broadcaster who delivered the news to Americans each night in five separate decades, died Sunday. He was 67.

Jennings, who announced in April that he had lung cancer, died at his New York home, ABC News President David Westin said.

“Peter has been our colleague, our friend, and our leader in so many ways. None of us will be the same without him,” Westin said.

With Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, Jennings was part of a triumvirate that dominated network news for more than two decades, through the birth of cable news and the Internet. His smooth delivery and years of international reporting experience made Jennings particularly popular among urban dwellers.

Jennings was the face of ABC News whenever a big story broke. He logged more than 60 hours on the air during the week of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, offering a soothing sense of continuity during a troubled time.

“There are a lot of people who think our job is to reassure the public every night that their home, their community and their nation is safe,” he told author Jeff Alan. “I don’t subscribe to that at all. I subscribe to leaving people with essentially — sorry it’s a cliche — a rough draft of history. Some days it’s reassuring, some days it’s absolutely destructive.”

Jennings’ announcement four months ago that the longtime would begin treatment for lung cancer came as a shock.

“I will continue to do the broadcast,” he said, his voice husky, in a taped message that night. “On good days, my voice will not always be like this.”

But although Jennings occasionally came to the office, he never again appeared on the air.

Peter Jennings, Urbane News Anchor, Dies at 67
By JACQUES STEINBERG, August 8, 2005, The New York Times

Peter Jennings, a high school dropout from Canada who transformed himself into one of the most urbane, well-traveled and recognizable journalists on American television, died yesterday at home. He was 67 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was lung cancer, said Charles Gibson, who announced the death of his colleague on television in a special report just after 11:30 p.m. Mr. Jennings had disclosed that he was suffering from lung cancer on April 5, first in a written statement released by ABC and later that night on "World News Tonight," the evening news broadcast that he had led since September 1983.

In brief remarks at the end of that night's program, Mr. Jennings, his voice scratchy, told viewers that he hoped to return to the anchor desk as his health and strength permitted. But he never did.

It was a jarring departure for someone who for so long had been such a visible fixture in so many American homes each night. Along with the two other pillars of the so-called Big 3 - Tom Brokaw of NBC and Dan Rather of CBS - Mr. Jennings had, in the early 1980's, ushered in the era of the television news anchor as lavishly compensated, globe-trotting superstar. After Mr. Brokaw's departure from his anchor chair in December, followed by the retirement from the evening news of Mr. Rather in March, Mr. Jennings's death brings that era to a close.

For more than two decades, the magnitude of a news event could be measured, at least in part, by whether Mr. Jennings and his counterparts on the other two networks showed up on the scene. Indeed, they logged so many miles over so many years in so many trench coats and flak jackets that they effectively acted as bookends on some of the biggest running stories of modern times.

Mr. Jennings's official ABC biography notes, for example, that as a foreign correspondent, he was "in Berlin in the 1960's when the Berlin Wall was going up," and there again, as an anchor, "in the 1990's when it came down." Similarly, he was on the ground in Gdansk, Poland, for the birth of the Solidarity labor and political movement, and later for the overthrow of the country's Communist government.

In addition to reporting from nearly every major world capital and war zone, Mr. Jennings also managed to report from all 50 states, according to the network. He seemed to draw on that collective experience - as well as his practiced ability to calmly describe events as they unfolded live - not long after two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Over the course of that day, and those that immediately followed, he would spend more than 60 hours on the air in what Tom Shales of The Washington Post, among other critics, praised as a tour de force of interviewing and explanatory broadcast journalism laced with undisguised bewilderment.

"This is what it looked like moments ago," Mr. Jennings said at one point that first morning, as he introduced a piece of videotape recorded moments earlier in Lower Manhattan. "My God! The southern tower, 10:00 Eastern Time this morning, just collapsing on itself. This is a place where thousands of people worked. We have no idea what caused this."

The coverage of all three broadcast networks that week underscored a maxim of the television news business: that however much the audience of the evening news programs might have eroded in recent years, viewers usually return during moments of crisis.

"He was a man who came into the anchor chair absolutely prepared to do the job, from years and years of reporting in the field, which is precious and not easily duplicated," said Tom Bettag, who competed against Mr. Jennings as executive producer of the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" and later worked with Mr. Jennings as a colleague as executive producer of "Nightline."

"He established a level of trust with the viewer that would be difficult for anyone else to match going forward."

At the peak of his broadcast's popularity, in the 1992-1993 television season, Mr. Jennings drew an average audience of nearly 14 million people each night, according to Nielsen Media Research. He reached that milestone midway through an eight-year ratings winning streak, during which his audience sometimes exceeded those of both Mr. Brokaw and Mr. Rather by two million or more viewers. (For nearly a decade since, to his periodic frustration, his broadcast had lagged behind that of NBC's, even after Mr. Brokaw yielded to Brian Williams in December.)

Though the audience for the evening news has fallen precipitously in recent years - a casualty of changes in people's schedules and the competition offered by the cable news networks and the Internet - Mr. Jennings's broadcast and those on CBS and NBC still drew a combined audience of more than 25 million viewers this past year.

And however much his audience had aged - the median age of a Jennings viewer this past season was about 60, according to Nielsen - advertisers still spend in excess of $100 million annually on each of the evening news programs. Like Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Rather and now Mr. Williams, Mr. Jennings was well paid for his efforts: he earned an estimated $10 million a year in recent years. His most recent contract with the network was due to expire later this year , but at least until he became ill, the network was preparing to extend Mr. Jennings's time in the anchor chair for "several years to come," according to David Westin, president of ABC News.

Mr. Jennings's broadcast training had begun at an astonishingly young age, a function at least partly of his family background. Peter Charles Jennings was born July 29, 1938, in Toronto. His father, Charles, was a senior executive of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a pioneer in Canadian radio news.

In "The Century" (Doubleday, 1998), one of two history books that he co-wrote with Todd Brewster, Mr. Jennings recalled an early exercise that his father put him through to sharpen his powers of observation. "Describe the sky," his father had said. After the young boy had done so, his father dispatched him outside again. "Now, go out and slice it into pieces and describe each piece as different from the next."

By age 9, he had his own show on Canadian radio, "Peter's Program." He dropped out of high school at 17, and by his early 20's, was the host of a dance show similar to "American Bandstand" called "Club Thirteen."

His rise to the pinnacle of Canadian television news, and later its far larger counterpart to the south, was swift. In 1962, at age 24, he was named co-anchor of the national newscast on CTV, a competitor of his father's network, a job that he held until 1964.

That year, he moved to the United States to begin work as a correspondent for ABC. Barely a year later, the network named him an anchor of "Peter Jennings With the News," then a 15-minute newscast, which put him, at age 26, head-to-head with Walter Cronkite on CBS and the formidable tandem of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC. Though he would serve ABC in that capacity for nearly three years, Mr. Jennings said in an interview last year that he was ill-suited for the job and unhappy in it.

"I had the good sense to quit," he said.

What followed was more than a decade of postings abroad as a foreign correspondent for ABC, during which, Mr. Jennings said last year, he got an on-the-job introduction to the world with a tuition bill effectively footed by his employer.

"I have no formal education to speak of," Mr. Jennings said. "ABC has been my education and provided my education. ABC has enabled me to work everywhere in the world and has ended up paying me beyond handsomely."

From 1968 to 1978, Mr. Jennings traveled extensively, including to Vietnam, Munich (where he covered the hostage-taking and killings at the 1972 Summer Olympics) and Beirut (where he established the network's first news bureau in the Arab world).

In 1978, he began his second tour as an anchor for the network, serving as one of three hosts of "World News Tonight," along with Frank Reynolds and Max Robinson, in a format devised by Roone Arledge, the sports programmer who had added the news division to his portfolio. Mr. Jennings was the program's foreign anchor and reported from London until 1983.

Three weeks after Mr. Reynolds died following a battle with bone cancer, Mr. Jennings was named the sole anchor (and senior editor) of the broadcast, titles that Mr. Jennings continued to hold at his death.

As an anchor, Mr. Jennings presented himself as a worldly alternative to Mr. Brokaw's plain-spoken Midwestern manner and Mr. Rather's folksy, if at times offbeat, Southern charm. He neither spoke like many of his viewers ("about" came out of his mouth as A-BOOT, a remnant of his Canadian roots) nor looked like them, with a matinee-idol face and crisply tailored wardrobe that were frequently likened in print to those of James Bond.

Though his bearing could be stiff on the air (and his syntax sometimes criticized as being so simplistic as to border on patronizing), Mr. Jennings was immensely popular with his audience.

During a trip last fall through Kansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio in the weeks before the presidential election, he traveled at times aboard a coach customized by the news division to trumpet its campaign coverage and frequently received a rock star's welcome when he decamped.

For example, in the parking lot of a deli just outside of Pittsburgh, where he had come to interview a long-shot candidate for Congress whose threadbare headquarters was upstairs, Mr. Jennings found himself on the receiving end of several hugs from loyal viewers.

"He's so handsome," one of those viewers, Vilma Berryman, 66, the deli owner, observed immediately after meeting him. "He's taller than I thought. He speaks so softly."

"I feel like I know him," she added. "He's just so easy."

Like all of the Big 3, Mr. Jennings was not without his detractors. Some critics contended he was too soft on the air when describing the Palestinian cause or the regime of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro - charges he disputed. Similarly, a July 2004 article in the National Review portrayed him as a thinly veiled opponent of the American war in Iraq.

The article quoted Mr. Jennings as saying: "That is simply not the way I think of this role. This role is designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public."

Mr. Jennings was conscious of having been imbued, during his Canadian boyhood, with a skepticism about American behavior; at least partly as a result, he often delighted in presenting the opinions of those in the minority, whatever the situation.

And yet he simultaneously carried on an elaborate love affair with America, one that reached its apex in the summer of 2003, when he announced that he had become an American citizen, scoring, he said proudly, 100 percent on his citizenship test.

In a toast around that time that he gave at the new National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he described his adopted home as "this brash and noble container of dreams, this muse to artists and inventors and entrepreneurs, this beacon of optimism, this dynamo of energy, this trumpet blare of liberty."

Mr. Jennings's personal life was at times grist for the gossip pages, including his three divorces. His third wife, the author Kati Marton, whom he married in 1979 and divorced in 1993, is the mother of his two children, who survive him. They are a daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Christopher, both of New York City. He is also survived by his fourth wife, Kayce Freed, a former ABC television producer whom he married in December 1997, and a sister, Sarah Jennings of Ottawa, Canada. Having prided himself on rarely taking a sick day in nearly 40 years - and being dismissive, at times, of those well-paid colleagues who did - Mr. Jennings had missed the broadcast and the newsroom terribly in recent months.

In a letter posted on April 29 on the ABC news Web site, excerpts of which were read on that night's evening news, Mr. Jennings described how treatments for his cancer had proven more debilitating than he had expected.

"Yesterday I decided to go to the office," he wrote. "I live only a few blocks away. I got as far as the door. Chemo strikes."

"Do I detect a knowing but sympathetic smile on many of your faces?" he added.

About a month later, Mr. Jennings did make a rare visit to the ABC News headquarters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. With a gray sweater draped over his shoulders, and his feet clad in thick wool socks and moccasins, Mr. Jennings held court for about a half hour late one morning from his desk, in what is known as "the rim," a newsroom one floor below the "World News Tonight" anchor desk.

His voice soft and his body as much as 20 pounds lighter than usual, Mr. Jennings told several dozen staff members who had gathered around his desk about the doctors and other patients he had been meeting and of a first-time radiation treatment that he had just received, according to one veteran correspondent who did not wish to be identified so as not to offend Mr. Jennings's family.

Mr. Jennings brought himself and many of his colleagues to tears when he turned to Charles Gibson, one of his two principal substitutes on the program, and thanked him for closing each night's broadcast with the phrase, "for Peter Jennings and all of us at ABC News." Mr. Jennings then put his hand over his heart and said, "That means so much to me," according to his colleague.

But whatever maudlin feelings were in the air quickly evaporated, Mr. Jennings's longtime colleague recounted, when the anchor brandished a familiar black calligraphy pen and began marking up the rundown for that night's broadcast. "No, that's not a good one," he could be overheard telling Jonathan Banner, the program's executive producer, about one segment. Of another, he added, "You want to move this higher up."

For his closest colleagues, the reassuring sight of the anchor-as-editor provided a fleeting moment of normalcy in what had been a disorienting and heartbreaking few months.