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ABC News Anchor Was a Voice of the World

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.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company