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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)

Based in New York City, he was immediately seen as a rising star. A year later, at age 26, he was named co-anchor and then sole anchor of ABC's evening 15-minute news broadcast. His inexperience showed, especially in comparison to veteran competitors Walter Cronkite at CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC. Widely derided as a "glamorcaster" and "anchorboy," Jennings was ridiculed for his Anglicized diction and ignorance of American history and culture. After three years, he returned to the ranks of domestic news correspondents.

He was sent to the Middle East in 1969 to establish the first American television news bureau in the Arab world, and there he found his niche. For seven years, based in Beirut, he traveled to virtually every Arab country and built up a store of knowledge he would draw upon for years. His reporting during the 1973 Israeli-Arab war earned the respect of viewers. He conducted the first television interview with Yasser Arafat, and his 1974 profile of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat won him his first George Foster Peabody award. He was the first U.S. reporter to interview the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, then in exile in Paris.

Jennings returned to the United States in 1975 as Washington correspondent and news reader for the predecessor to "Good Morning America." After 10 months, he was reassigned overseas as chief foreign correspondent, based in London.

From that seat, he returned to the anchor's chair. ABC executive Roone Arledge created a three-anchor broadcast, with Frank Reynolds in Washington, Max Robinson in Chicago and Jennings in London. In 1983, after Reynolds died of cancer, Jennings was called back to the United States to retrieve his role as ABC's sole anchorman.

His years at the helm were not without glitches. He, along with the other major networks, prematurely and erroneously reported that Democratic nominee Al Gore won Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Jennings was frequently accused of liberal bias by conservative media watchdog organizations and of pro-Palestinian bias by Israeli partisans. A 2004 commentary in a journalism trade magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, dismissed criticism that ABC's newscast was "antiwar," noting that "despite the pressure to be a cheerleader, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings was more probing during the war than its rivals. The center's antiwar label is looking like ABC's red badge of courage."

In 1994, Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, who is no fan of Jennings, praised his special on the Bosnian war: "You have to hand it to Peter Jennings. He has managed to maintain his dignity and his stature even as network news has grown increasingly tabloidian all around him. He has stayed above the fray, and as frays go, this one is particularly unsavory... It isn't lurid or sexy and it probably won't get big ratings, but it's the kind of thing a network news division ought to be doing just for the sake of doing it. . . . It could easily be argued that CBS News remembers [Edward R.] Murrow in words, whereas ABC News remembers him in deeds -- deeds like tonight's Jennings report."

Five times, Jennings was named the country's best anchorman in a poll of readers of another trade magazine, Washington Journalism Review. He was awarded Harvard University's Goldsmith Career Award for excellence in journalism and the Radio-Television News Directors Association's Paul White Award, chosen by the news directors of the three major networks. "World News Tonight" was honored with the Edward R. Murrow Award for best national newscast in 2004. Jennings won 14 national Emmys, two George Foster Peabody awards, several Overseas Press Club awards and several Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for journalism.

In addition to anchoring, he covered issues in depth on hour-long prime-time specials, called "Peter Jennings Reporting." Begun in 1990, the show ranged from historic issues -- such as the Kennedy assassination -- to religious controversies to the crisis in arts funding to a chronicle of the bombers of Oklahoma City, as well as international crises. He anchored live news specials for children and co-wrote "The Century" (1998) with Todd Brewster, which became a 12-hour ABC series. He and Brewster also collaborated on "In Search of America" (2002).

His marriages to Valerie Godsoe, Annie Malouf and Kati Marton ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Kayce Freed of New York; and two children from his third marriage, Elizabeth and Christopher.


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