When thinking about what I missed from the states ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings was always on my list. Sure, we had Sky TV from Britain in Spain and had the fabulous BBC news, but for me TV NEWS was sitting down at 5:30 p.m. CT weekdays listening to Peter and learning from his many news specials. I know they say you cannot go home again, and surely the United States and the Minneapolis I left behind in 1998 when I moved to Europe no longer exist, but on visits stateside Peter was always there helping me to be informed and to make sense of the world. And now he's gone too ... much too soon. And I am very sad. God bless you, Peter. I will miss you.
Peter Jennings, Urbane News Anchor, Dies at 67
By JACQUES STEINBERG
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.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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