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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Peter Jennings: A life on camera

He was one of the most honoured and most-watched journalists ever. For more than two decades, Peter Jennings was the consummate anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight – a smooth and reassuring presence during some of America’s most difficult times. All told, his career at ABC lasted more than 40 years – a stretch as remarkable for its longevity as for its success. Cable and satellite TV allowed many Canadians to catch a glimpse of Jennings, too, anchoring from the most important desk at ABC News headquarters in New York.Many Canadian viewers knew of Jennings’ deep roots in their country – that he was born in Toronto, that he began his broadcasting career in Canada; that his ABC newscast always seemed to have more “Can-Con” than the other U.S. networks.The broadcasting career of this veteran anchor actually began when he was just nine years old. He was the high-pitched anchorboy of Peter’s People, a Saturday morning program for kids that aired on CBC Radio. His father, Charles Jennings, was a veteran CBC Radio newsman and executive at the network.In 1959, 21-year-old Jennings joined the news reporting staff of CFJR, a radio station in Brockville, Ont. He fed many of his stories to the CBC. It wasn’t long before he was offered a job at CJOH-TV in Ottawa (where he hosted a dance show at one point) and was soon hired by the fledgling CTV network to anchor its late-night national news. Peter Jennings was just 23 at the time.In 1964, an ABC News executive spotted Jennings and hired him as a reporter. Within a year, the 27-year-old found himself catapulted into the evening anchor chair – the youngest anchor ever of the ABC Evening News. It was an experience Jennings called his “great failure” in a 1998 interview with Maclean’s magazine.Viewers didn’t warm to him back then. The ratings were poor; he lacked the experience of rival anchors Walter Cronkite on CBS or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC. Three years later, in 1968, he left for ABC’s Rome bureau and the life of a foreign correspondent.If he had lacked experience before, a series of foreign postings quickly established Jennings as a formidable journalist. He was one of the first TV journalists to go to Vietnam in the 1960s and spent the next 15 years reporting from many of the world’s hot spots. His work got noticed. Story by story, he earned the trust of the ABC News audience and respect from his peers.”When I knew him in Beirut and Cairo, he would often do the rounds of key embassies to get the kinds of deep briefings that many correspondents didn’t bother to do.”For seven years, Jennings was ABC’s Middle East bureau chief, based in Beirut. “Peter was one of the first U.S. foreign correspondents to strike a more balanced note on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and to report in depth about Palestinian grievances,” Halton said.His 1974 profile of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat won him the first of his two Peabody awards.Those Middle East contacts paid off when he managed to snag the first interview with Ayatollah Khomeini following his return to Iran after the shah went into exile in 1979.ABC lured him back to the anchor desk in 1983. The death of lead anchor Frank Reynolds had left a big opening at the very top. As much as he loved international reporting, Jennings accepted an offer to again anchor the flagship evening newscast.For more than 20 years, trust and fairness were hallmarks of Jennings’ stewardship of ABC World News Tonight. The program was often, but not always, the highest rated of the three evening news broadcasts.He wasn’t just the anchor; he was the program’s senior editor. He regularly called correspondents to discuss the story they were working on. He would rewrite scripts and was known for his insistence on tackling complex issues and then making them understandable.He was part of the triumvirate (the others being Dan Rather of CBS News and Tom Brokaw from NBC) who dominated the American media scene for many years. Long before the internet, before cable and satellite TV, it was these three who gave Americans much of their worldview. And that was a responsibility Jennings took to heart.He was deeply involved in the planning of each day’s coverage and frequently lobbied for important stories – especially international stories – that appeared to be sinking below the radar of coverage.Above all, he wanted his newscast’s style to be straightforward and approachable. “Good evening. We begin tonight in …” was his trademark start to each program.”He was so natural; so good live,” said CBC-TV’s chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge. “He knew how to talk to everybody.”Mansbridge said it was no accident that ABC’s nightly newscast had more Canadian content than the others. “He was passionate about Canadians.”Passionate too about Canadian reporters, Mansbridge observed, noting that Jennings and ABC News lured many away from Canadian networks.Along the way, Jennings won no fewer than 14 Emmy awards as well as a host of other honours. His one-hour primetime documentary series, Peter Jennings Reporting, took home many prizes. It gave him the opportunity to explore issues in greater depth than a newscast could offer. He tackled the conflicts raging in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, among others. But he also explored such domestic issues as arts funding, abortion and gun control.He never gave up his Canadian citizenship and remained a persistent advocate for his native country. “He remained deeply proud of being a Canadian,” said Halton.Jennings maintained a cottage in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills and kept in touch with former colleagues in Ottawa. He was a generous supporter of many Canadian charities, frequently donating his fees from speaking engagements.Mansbridge said American critics sometimes used his citizenship as ammunition to criticize his work. And Jennings’ American friends would constantly urge him to join their ranks. He resisted for the longest time, but finally decided to take out U.S. citizenship in 2003. He said the Sept. 11 attacks made him feel a closer connection to the United States.He was a fit and energetic man who looked years younger than he was. So his April 5, 2005, announcement that he was battling lung cancer came as a shock. “There will be good days and bad, which means some days I may be cranky and some days really cranky,” he wrote in a light-hearted e-mail to staff.He said he would return to the anchor chair when he was able. But beyond a few visits to the office and phone consultations from home, he was never to anchor again.”Peter is the franchise,” ABC News president David Westin once said of Jennings’ importance to the network. That feeling was further underscored when ABC launched its 2005 promotional campaign for Jennings with the simple tag line “Trust is earned.”Peter Jennings is survived by his wife, Kayce, and two children from a previous marriage. Peter Jennings was 67.Note: This article was first published by CBS online.

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