ABC’s Jennings Has Lung Cancer

Apr 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

“ABC World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings has revealed that he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and will begin chemotherapy next week as an outpatient.

In an e-mail Monday afternoon to senior “World News” staffers about “a change in my life,” Mr. Jennings wrote, “I will continue to do the broadcast. There will be good days and bad, which means that some days I will be cranky and some days really cranky!”

Mr. Jennings’ sobering announcement about his diagnosis, which had been vaguely rumored in TV news circles Monday, was accompanied by a note from ABC News President David Westin, who said, “It’s both Peter’s and my expectation that he will anchor ‘World News Tonight’ during the period of treatment to the extent he can do so comfortably; but we should also expect him to be off the broadcast from time to time, depending on how he feels. Charlie Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas and others will be substituting for Peter as necessary and when their other responsibilities permit.”

Mr. Jennings had planned to anchor “World News” Tuesday night — and to address his health during the newscast — but he decided his voice was not up to the task, a spokeswoman said. Instead, he taped an “End Note” statement and went home.

Ms. Vargas, a familiar substitute and the co-anchor of “20/20,” sat in for Mr. Jennings.

“To be perfectly honest, I am a little surprised at the kindness today from so many people,” he said in his recorded comments. “That’s not intended as false modesty. But even I was taken aback by how far and how fast news travels.”

He added, “I wonder if other men and woman ask their doctors right away, ‘OK, Doc, when does the hair go?'”

Mr. Jennings also struck a note that resonated with people who have confronted cancer when he said, “The National Cancer Institute says that we are survivors from the moment of diagnosis.”

Mr. Jennings, 66, once was known as what one former colleague described as “a relentless smoker” who would puff right up to air time, but he said on “World News” Tuesday night that he quit about 20 years ago “and I was weak and I smoked over 9/11.”

Mr. Jennings’ first stint as anchor of ABC News’ flagship newscast started a year after he joined the news organization in 1964 and lasted from 1965 to 1968. By the time he was named “World News” anchor and senior editor in 1983, he had built a reputation as one of the most urbane and world-wise TV journalists in the United States. The Canadian-born Mr. Jennings quietly became an American citizen in 2003.

“World News Tonight” has recently narrowed the competition for first place in the evening news wars with “NBC Nightly News,” even occasionally erasing the gap in the key news demographic group of viewers 25 to 54.

“Almost 10 million Americans are living with cancer. I am sure I will learn from them how to cope with the facts of life that none of us anticipated,” Mr. Jennings said in his e-mail to colleagues. “In all the years I have worked here I have had the most outstanding support from this news division.”

The jarring news produced statements that were a reminder that collegiality flourishes in spite of the intense competition among the flagship anchors.

“Peter is an old friend. I’m heartbroken, but he’s also a tough guy. I’m counting on him getting through this very difficult passage,” said Tom Brokaw, who stepped down from “NBC Nightly News” last December. Mr. Brokaw said he and his wife, Meredith, “are in touch” with Mr. Jennings and his wife, Kayce. “They have all of our support and prayers.”

“Peter is a friend and the best of competitors. It will take more than this to scare the man I know,” said Brian Williams, Mr. Brokaw’s “Nightly” successor. “Our industry will not be the same until he has permanently returned to his broadcast. He will tackle this as he has every challenging assignment during his life and career: by facing it head-on. He and his family are in my thoughts and prayers.”

CBS newsman Bob Schieffer was diagnosed with bladder cancer on his birthday in February 2003 and got an all-clear after his recent two-year checkup.

“The hardest thing is saying out loud, ‘I’ve got cancer,’ ” said Mr. Schieffer, who was inundated with e-mails offering moral support after his battle became known. “I think it very good of [Mr. Jennings] to make this public,” he said. “I started talking about it and it made me feel better.

“Every person has to make that decision for themselves,” Mr. Shieffer said.