Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings, RIP

Lung cancer claimed the life of ABC News Anchor Peter Jennings last night. He was only 67; I say that because Mr. Jennings always looked much younger than his age, beginning with his first stint in the ABC anchor chair in the 1960s. He was only 26, but appeared to have stumbled into the newsroom on the way home from his high school prom.

ABC didn't have much of a news division, nor many viewers back in those days. The network was desperately trying to attract a younger audience, and Jennings was part of that plan. It didn't work; competing against the entrenched Walter Cronkite on CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, Jennings had few viewers. After being banished from the anchor chair in 1966, he spent the next 15 years as a foreign correspondent, in Vietnam, the Middle East and London. In between, there was a brief stint in Washington, where he spent an uncomfortable year as newsreader for AM America, the predecessor to Good Morning America.

Jennings returned to the anchor chair in 1978, part of Roone Arledge's multiple anchor format for World News Tonight. Five years later, after the sudden death of lead anchor Frank Reynolds, Jennings became the sole anchor of the broadcast. Jennings enjoyed greater success the second time around; Arledge had spent freely to build ABC's news division and his broadcast enjoyed much stronger lead-in ratings, because many of the network's affiliates carried the Oprah Winfrey Show, attracting large numbers of female viewers who stuck around for the Jennings broadcast. World News Tonight reached #1 in the ratings by the mid-1980s and didn't surrender that lead for almost seven years, when it was finally overtaken by Tom Brokaw and NBC.

Along the way, Jennings established himself as a smooth, polished presence in the anchor chair. As someone who once labored in the salt mines of broadcasting, I could only marvel at his on-air skills. A friend who worked at ABC said Jennings could literally slide into the seat seconds before the broadcast began, glance at the teleprompter, and read the intro as though he'd been practicing all afternoon. He was at his best during ABC's marathon, global coverage of the 2000 Millenium Celebration, and again on 9-11. While some of his competitors faltered--CBS sent Russ Mitchell to spell Dan Rather just a few hours into their broadcast--Jennings was calm, measured and professional well into the evening. He won a well-deserved Peabody award for that performance.

But Jennings had his warts as well. There were three, well-publicized divorces along the way, and the anchorman was a womanizer of legendary repute. He reportedly met his third wife, writer and TV producer Kati Marton, by offering to adjust the kilt she wore to work in ABC's London bureau. When Ms. Marton later left him for another man, some women at ABC described it as just deserts.

As a journalist, Jennings was fond of bragging about establishing the first American TV bureau in the Middle East in the early 1970s, but failed to mention that many of his cronies were Palestinians and his coverage shamelessly favored their cause. One of Jenning's live-in girlfriends from that period was Hanan Ashrawi, best known as Yasser Arafat's mouthpiece during peace talks with Israel. Not surprisingly, his coverage of other issues tilted left as well, although (unlike Rather and Brokaw) he acknowledged the liberal bias of broadcast news, and opined that TV needed more conservative voices. He championed George Will's brief stint as a commentator on World News Tonight, and later, supported the work of John Stossel, despite his conservative views.

Jennings will be remembered as a talented journalist and broadcaster and the last of a vanishing breed: a network anchor in an era when most of us relied on the MSM for our news. We should mourn the death of Peter Jennings, but be thankful that we won't rely on his successor to inform and shape our world view.

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