ABC News Anchor Was a Voice of the World

Peter Jennings on the ABC News Set
Peter Jennings poses at one of ABC's studios in New York in Feb. 2001. (Gino Domenico -- AP)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Peter Jennings, 67, the urbane anchorman of ABC's evening newscast for the past 22 years, died yesterday at his home in New York, his network announced.

Jennings had not been on the air since April 5, when he revealed he had lung cancer. He had been conspicuously absent from the coverage of Pope John Paul II's funeral in Rome. A smoker until about 20 years ago, he said he relapsed under the pressure of Sept. 11, 2001, but later quit again.

The Canadian-born Jennings was a familiar face in millions of households for more than 40 years. His well-rounded tones, world-savvy air and matter-of-fact delivery led "World News Tonight" to the top of the ratings for 11 of the past 20 years, even as all the networks lost huge numbers of viewers to cable television, to the Internet and to the longer workdays and busier lives of those who used to watch the news over the family dinner.

Throughout the years, Jennings traveled the world as a reporter and anchorman, specializing in the Middle East long before many domestic viewers knew much more about the region than the location of Jerusalem.

He was at the Summer Olympics in Munich on Sept. 5, 1972, when Arab terrorists seized and killed Israeli athletes. Familiar with the history and goals of the Black September terrorist group, Jennings filed a series of reports and moved his camera crew close enough to get clear pictures of the terrorists, a risk that "displayed considerable moxie," Barbara Matusow wrote in "The Evening Stars: The Making of the Network News Anchor." She called the reports "among the most gripping episodes ever shown on live television."

Twenty-nine years later, Jennings was on the air within minutes after two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He stayed on the air for more than 12 consecutive hours, part of 60 hours of airtime for him that first week, ABC News said in its biography of the anchor. His steadiness and "Herculean" work during that period was widely praised.

"We watched Peter Jennings' beard grow, and we were somehow reassured that he did not shave, that through morning, afternoon, evening and on into the night, he did not leave the desk, that he confided in us his uncertainties, that he shared the confusions of each hour," Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher wrote. "He grew more pale and more vulnerable, as if he knew that we needed him to be human, so that we could be together."

During that devastating day, as all activity stopped and Americans were glued to their televisions, Jennings's trademark cool warmed as he faltered just a bit.

"We do not very often make recommendations for people's behavior from this chair," he told viewers, "but as [one ABC News correspondent] was talking, I checked in with my children, and it -- who were deeply stressed, as I think young people are across the United States. So, if you're a parent, you've got a kid" -- he paused and smiled awkwardly -- "in some other part of the country, call them up. Exchange observations."

He became a citizen of the United States in 2003, 39 years after he left Canada. "There's no explaining the timing," he told USA Today. "Did 9/11 make a difference? Yes, it did make a difference. Did working on [his book] 'In Search of America' for the last several years, which kept me on the road a lot and dealing with both contemporary and historic national issues -- about which I felt very deeply? That made a difference."

His death capped a period in which the evening anchors of all three major broadcast networks left the anchor's chair. NBC's Tom Brokaw retired in December 2004, and CBS's Dan Rather stepped down from the anchor's job in March.

Born in Toronto, the son of pioneering Canadian broadcaster Charles Jennings first broadcast "Peter's People," a radio show for children, as a young boy. He dropped out of high school, worked briefly in a bank and then entered broadcasting. He became a radio news reporter in Brockton, Ontario, and worked briefly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. before switching to co-anchor CTV National News at Canada's first privately owned network in 1962. While covering the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, Jennings attracted the attention of the then-president of ABC, Elmer W. Lower, who offered him a job. Jennings turned it down but three months later reconsidered and accepted.

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