Colleagues, Friends and Public Express Esteem for Newsman

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The life, career and impact of Peter Jennings were well and thoroughly remembered in the week following his death Aug. 7 from lung cancer at the age of 67.

By midweek ABC News had received some 20,000 e-mails and hundreds of pledges to quit smoking in Mr. Jennings’ honor from a public that seemed as bereft as Mr. Jennings’ colleagues and competitors.

“He was a fixture in American life and he got a big piece of America through some really awful times, and all kinds of connections get made,” said Jeff Gralnick, a new media and technology consultant to NBC News and once executive producer of special events and “World News Tonight” during the Jennings era at ABC News.

“So what’s happening now is expected and expectable and deserved,” Mr. Gralnick said.

Mr. Jennings’ broadcasting career started early and big. The son of Chris Jennings, known as the Edward R. Murrow of Canada, he had his own radio show, “Peter’s People,” at age 9. The younger Mr. Jennings dropped out of high school, a choice that would for most of his life both feed his insecurities and fuel his determination to succeed.

His first go at anchor of “World News Tonight” started in 1964, when he was a boyish import, and ended two years later, with his requesting re-assignment to foreign correspondent so he could climb the ladder from the ground up like everyone else.

He spent 10 formative years abroad, much of that time in the Middle East, where he steeped himself in the politics and religions. He established himself as a good study and a dashing and indefatigable reporter.

His star already was on the rise when he was assigned to do features at the 1972 Munich Olympics. His calm and knowing coverage of Arab terrorists’ taking Israeli athletes hostage changed overnight the perception of the once-disdained ABC News.

By the time he returned to the “World News Tonight” anchor desk in 1983, he was self-taught and far better educated than the average high school dropout. He proved to be one of the late Roone Arledge’s biggest news stars.

For more than two decades, through wars and elections and royal weddings, presidents’ funerals and a 24-hour welcome to the new millennium, he played the cool, calm and collected Cary Grant to Tom Brokaw’s Midwestern boy next door at NBC News and Dan Rather’s twangy tough guy at CBS News. With Mr. Brokaw now semi-retired and Mr. Rather now a CBS News correspondent, Mr. Jennings’ death ends the era of larger-than-life voice-of-God anchors as the face of networks.

As the senior editor of “World News Tonight,” a role some say he took more seriously than anchoring, he fought to keep more international news in the broadcast and played taskmaster and mentor to two generations of ABC News correspondents, anchors-in-waiting and producers.

Executive producer Tom Yellin was Mr. Jennings’ frequent collaborator in documentaries and on town hall, children’s and breaking-news specials. Mr. Yellin was executive producer of last week’s prime-time tribute, “Peter Jennings: Reporter,” which made clear that people who worked with Mr. Jennings fought with him. It also showed they absorbed Mr. Jennings’ famously high-minded values, which would help him collect 16 Emmys, among other awards.

While the tide was running toward lightweight prime-time news programming, Mr. Jennings gravitated toward more sober subjects that ran a gamut from religion to the troubled Los Angeles Police Department to the politics of tobacco, the tragedies in Bosnia and other far-flung regions of which Americans were presumed to have no understanding and very little interest.

“The enduring hallmark of his career is he could figure it out: This matters, this doesn’t,” Mr. Yellin said. “He had the confidence to make that judgment. He wasn’t trying to figure out what do people want to know. He was trying to figure out what matters.”

“Sometimes I [still] hear him yelling at me,” Mr. Yellin said. “But I think what I hope will last for all of us who worked closely with Peter is that the truth matters, and when you think you’ve found it, keep looking.”

“Peter demanded perfection of himself and therefore he demanded perfection of everybody else,” Mr. Gralnick said. “That’s why he sometimes was a pain in the ass to work with.”

Emily Rooney’s seven months as executive producer of “World News Tonight” in 1994 was the shortest such tenure during Mr. Jennings’ 22-year reign. But it was an impactful run.

“I came away with such a great appreciation for what I learned about world politics, about Africa, about the Balkans,” Ms. Rooney said. She recalled sitting one afternoon with Mr. Jennings in deep contemplation of the deteriorating situation in the Balkans. All of a sudden, “He looked up and said, ‘Kosovo is next.'” And so it was.

It’s easy to say that it is only natural for correspondents and wannabe anchors to attempt to model themselves after their respective flagship anchor or signature correspondents.

But to have mimicked the mannerisms and demeanor of Mr. Jennings would have been foolish, “Like trying to model yourself after Ted Williams,” said Chris Wallace, who spent 15 years at ABC News before joining Fox News in 2003 as moderator of “Fox News Sunday.”

Aaron Brown spent a decade as a correspondent and anchor at ABC News before joining CNN just in time to be the network’s lead anchor on 9/11. He said he didn’t model himself after Mr. Jennings, but, “I was student to his mentor.”

“In many ways, I conduct myself on the air as if the one thing I feared most was that Peter wouldn’t be proud of me,” he said.

Mr. Jennings did have his softie side, as anyone could see who heard him speak about his children on 9/11 or the dual U.S. citizenship he gained in 2003.

Mr. Gralnick said that for him, Mr. Jennings’ career-defining moment occurred in 1986, during coverage of the Challenger tragedy that claimed the lives of the seven space shuttle astronauts moments after liftoff.

“Peter grieved with the nation, and he wasn’t afraid to do that,” Mr. Gralnick said. But somewhere near the end of the memorial service for the seven astronauts, when emotions were getting harder to control, “I hit the IFB key [that allowed him to speak into Mr. Jennings’ ear] and I said one word: ‘Steady.'”

And so he was, whether fending off accusations of being pro-Arab or antiwar or even, on April 5, when he announced his illness.

Following his announcement, Mr. Jennings did not return to the air, but he remained involved in the broadcast by phone until very near the end. The broadcast, “World News Tonight With Peter Jennings,” will continue to carry his name for now.

Mr. Jennings’ passing came peacefully, with his fourth wife, Kayce, a former “20/20” producer, and his children from his second marriage, Elizabeth and Christopher, and his sister Sarah Jennings by his side.

A memorial will be held sometime after Labor Day.