The news that “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings has lung cancer and will begin chemotherapy this week was a shock to ABC and TV journalism insiders and viewers, who posted get-well messages at ABCNews.com by the thousands to their main anchorman of more than 20 years.
The sudden development confronted ABC News with the need to make significant emotional adjustments but only minor tweaks to the mechanism that guarantees there is always, even on the most normal days, a backup anchor available for Mr. Jennings, who said he intends to continue to work whenever possible while undergoing treatment.
Mr. Jennings, 66, had intended to anchor “World News” April 5, the day his diagnosis was announced, but at the eleventh hour decided his voice was not up to doing much more than taping a short “End Notes” segment for the newscast.
Even in cases where Mr. Jennings is only going out to lunch or to make an afternoon speech in Manhattan, “for the hours he is not in the building, there is someone standing by, ready to go,” a spokeswoman said.
At the top of the list of substitutes are “20/20’s” Elizabeth Vargas and “Good Morning America” anchor Charlie Gibson, who shared substitute duties last week. She was in New York and he was in Rome, where he covered the death of Pope John Paul II. Others who have filled in and will continue to do so include “GMA Weekend’s” Kate Snow and correspondent Bob Woodruff.
“There may have to be more juggling, but the process is already in place for coordinating anchor schedules,” the spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, expressions of affection, dismay and support poured in last week.
Mr. Jennings’ spokeswoman said there had been “hundreds” of phone messages from colleagues at ABC and other networks, from former presidents and a wide swath of elected officials and from fellow Canadians. (Mr. Jennings became a U.S. citizen in 2003.)
At the end of an appearance on NBC’s “Today” last Thursday, former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, who described himself and Mr. Jennings as “friendly rivals” and “very good friends,” said he had been in touch with Mr. Jennings’ wife, Kayce.
“This is going to be a tough passage, and they know that,” Mr. Brokaw said. “And I think that all of us who are his friends and his family and his colleagues are so frustrated and kind of enraged by it. But at the same time, we know how many American families have gone through this, and we’ll learn from them. Peter and Kayce have to concentrate on each other and the modern miracles of medicine, and the rest of us just have to be there for him. It’s been an unsettling time for all of us.”
At the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner Wednesday in Washington, many people spoke of Mr. Jennings, including correspondent Chris Bury, who accepted the second annual David Bloom Award on behalf of ABC’s “Nightline.”
Mr. Bury said, “I’d be remiss if I did not mention one of the most courageous and compassionate reporters and colleagues I’d ever known. I know all of you will join me in keeping Peter in your hearts and prayers and in wishing him a timely and robust recovery.”
Messages Pour In
Thousands have done just that on the ABC News message board. In often emotional e-mails with such subject lines as “Our Favorite Dinner Guest,” “We need our wagon master!” and “Hair loss isn’t so bad,” they offered their own experiences, advice, prayers and a “Heavenly Hat” for Mr. Jennings to wear should the chemotherapy cause him to lose his hair.
One e-mailer wrote: “You make my blood boil at times, but one thing you do is make me think. I pray God’s will for you and that you recover with as little discomfort as possible so you can continue to show me another side of a subject.”
Most made clear they are fans. One woman wrote: “We will miss your mellow, familiar voice at 6:30 as we sit down to eat. We will keep your reservation open at our dinner table … as long as it takes.” And an e-mail from a viewer in Japan said, “We Japanese have 8 million Gods in Shinto. Now I’m praying to them to help you.”