Peter Jennings, the last of the three long-dominant network anchors still on the job, said yesterday he has been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Jennings, 66, plans to begin chemotherapy and to continue to anchor ABC's "World News Tonight" when he can, but specialists said the decision to forgo surgery suggests a more advanced form of cancer for which long-term survival rates are relatively low.
Peter Jennings plans to remain at anchor desk.
Jennings had planned to anchor last night's newscast, but decided an hour before airtime that his voice was too weak. In a videotaped message, he disclosed the diagnosis in a raspy voice, saying, "Yes, I was a smoker until about 20 years ago, and I was weak and smoked over 9/11. But whatever the reason, the news does slow you down a bit. . . . The National Cancer Institute says that we are survivors from the moment of diagnosis. I will continue to do the broadcast; on good days my voice will not always be like this."
After a four-month period in which Tom Brokaw retired at NBC, Dan Rather relinquished the anchor chair at CBS and Ted Koppel said he was leaving ABC, Jennings's illness underscored the generational shift underway at the broadcast networks. They have been losing audience share for two decades but still reach 30 million people with their evening newscasts.
Jennings has been the face of ABC News for much of his 40-year career there, first as anchor from 1965 to 1968, in what he has described as an unsuccessful tenure, then as part of a three-man anchor team in 1978 before becoming solo anchor again in 1983.
"He is of overwhelming importance to ABC News and its rise from third place [to second] in the competition with CBS and NBC," said former ABC correspondent Bob Zelnick, now chairman of Boston University's journalism department. "He is an outstanding newsman. He is so integral a part of 'World News Tonight' that one can't even envision the program without him."
Since Brokaw's departure in December, Jennings has brought his newscast close to the top-rated "NBC Nightly News" in the Nielsens. ABC anticipated Brokaw's resignation by kicking off a promotional campaign for Jennings with the tag line: "Trust is earned."
ABC News President David Westin said in a note to the staff that "Peter's been given a tough assignment. He's already bringing to this new challenge the courage and strength we've seen so often in his reporting from the field and in anchoring ABC News." Westin said Charlie Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas and others would fill in for Jennings when necessary. Vargas got the last-minute call last night.
ABC executives refused to provide medical details of the type or state of Jennings's cancer. Nine in 10 lung cancer cases are related to smoking, and a diminishing risk continues even after someone quits.
Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, said a decision by patients not to seek surgery for lung cancer "suggests they believe it's already spread to a point where surgery does not offer a cure." This is either because the cancer is at too advanced a stage or because it is a form called small-cell cancer -- which occurs in about a quarter of such cases -- and has already spread to other parts of the body, he said. Still, "chemotherapy can absolutely prolong life," said Edelman, who teaches at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Michael Thun, vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, said that "the most effective treatment for localized lung cancer is surgical removal. If it's already spread, then surgery is not an option." Although the five-year survival rate for men with operable lung cancer is 45 percent, he said, it is under 14 percent for more advanced cancer that cannot be removed.
Jennings, who had not been feeling well for months, got the diagnosis Monday afternoon and told his staff that night. Some in the industry had been sniping at him for not going to Asia to cover the tsunami and not anchoring coverage of the pope's final hours Friday and Saturday or heading off to Rome.
"Peter has always been healthy as a horse and shows up for everything," said an ABC staffer who requested anonymity because network employees have been asked not to comment. "For Peter not to be there for the pope truly did leave everyone saying there must be something terribly wrong." But, the staffer added, "this is a man who will have no time and no patience for pity."
In a note to his staff, Jennings wrote: "There will be good days and bad, which means that some days I may be cranky and some days really cranky!"
Jennings added a similarly light note on last night's broadcast, smiling several times and saying that he was "a little surprised at the kindness today from so many people. . . . I wonder if other men and women ask their doctors right away, 'Okay, Doc, when does the hair go?' " Koppel, who spoke to Jennings shortly after the diagnosis, told his staff yesterday: "It is characteristically courageous of Peter that he has chosen to share this information with everyone immediately."
Brokaw said he has been in touch with Jennings and his wife, Kayce. "Peter is an old friend," Brokaw said in a statement. "I'm heartbroken, but he's also a tough guy. I'm counting on him getting through this very difficult passage."
Jennings, Rather and Brokaw once dominated the media landscape, to a degree unimaginable today, because beginning in the early 1980s they reached about half the television audience, unchallenged by cable news -- then in its infancy -- or talk radio or the Internet.
By the time newer and faster technological rivals came on the scene, the Big Three anchors were well-established figures, having chronicled stories from war to impeachment to terrorism. A younger generation of anchors mostly lacks that depth of experience -- Jennings as a Middle East correspondent, Rather as a White House correspondent and "60 Minutes" contributor, Brokaw as a White House reporter and "Today" host.
NBC planned best for the inevitable succession, anointing Brian Williams, 45, who has held onto the ratings lead, 2 1/2 years before he took over in December. CBS had no replacement ready when Rather, under pressure from his botching of the story about President Bush's military service, stepped down last month, although Bob Schieffer, 68, has won praise as interim anchor for his more conversational style.
ABC, despite a stable of high-priced stars, never groomed an obvious young successor to Jennings. And the evening news franchise itself, less lucrative than the popular morning shows, is often derided as an anachronism. "Good Morning America" co-host Diane Sawyer, as well as Gibson, would be part of any shortlist, but both seem happy with their current situations. Vargas is viewed as a rising star within the network. Koppel, who plans to leave ABC in December over plans to make "Nightline" a live, hour-long broadcast, has filled in for Jennings but never expressed interest in being a permanent evening anchor.
The son of a Canadian broadcaster, Jennings got dual citizenship after the 2001 terrorist attacks. He was the courtliest of the Big Three anchors, the most frequently married -- four times -- and the least self-promotional. He often described himself as a terrible interview.
Alex Jones of Harvard's Shorenstein media center said Jennings "was embarrassed that he had not finished high school and worked all the harder to be a superb journalist. This was always a man who had a more graceful humor and air of sophistication, which came from his days as a foreign correspondent when he looked like something from a 1940s movie, handsome and dashing."
Such was Jennings's longevity that he was in Germany when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down. Jennings was one of three western journalists to witness Saddam Hussein's first appearance in an Iraqi court last year. The winner of 14 Emmy Awards, he hosted specials on such topics as the search for Jesus, the Kennedy assassination and UFOs.
"Obviously this is an emotional day here," said ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. "Everyone's first, second and third thoughts are for Peter's speedy recovery."