Monday, August 08, 2005

Peter Jennings - 1938-2005

ABC anchorman Peter Jennings died today at age 65 of lung cancer ending an era in the history of network news in the United States.

Peter Jennings was literally born into broadcasting. He was born in Toronto in 1938 where his father, Charles Jennings, was a staff announcer for the CBC. Among his duties at the time was reading the National News Bulletin at 10 p.m. He also hosted special events and and travelled with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during the 1939 Royal Tour of Canada. Charles Jennings was eventually replaced as newsreader on the 10 p.m. National News by Lorne Greene but he went on to be a network Vice President at the CBC. Ironically this position hindered Peter's career as a broadcaster. Peter's first job in broadcasting occurred when he was 9 years old. The CBC was doing a Saturday kids show and asked Peter's mother if Peter was available to do it. The show was known as Peter's Program but it nearly ended when Charles Jennings returned from a trip for UNESCO. He was livid that Peter had been approached for the job because to him it represented nepotism. He was only just talked out of shutting down the program entirely. Years later, long after he dropped out of high school, Peter auditioned for an announcer's position at the CBC. This time there was no circumventing the nepotism regulations even though Jenning's audtion was the best of the lot. Charles Jennings did manage to arrange with a family friend for Peter to get a job with a small station in Brockville Ontario. This in turn led to a short stint with the CBC Northern Service followed by a job with CJOH-TV in Ottawa, one of Canada's first private stations, which was in fact owned by a former CBC colleague of Charles Jennings named Ernie Bushnell. When CJOH became one of the founding stations of the CTV Network, Peter Jennings became the network's first Parliamentary correspondent and, with Baden Langton, the first co-anchor of the CTV news.

Jennings' work with CTV attracted the attention of ABC News President Elmer Lower who offered Jennings a contract to work for ABC. In early 1965 Jennings suddenly found himself anchoring the ABC News. He was only 27 and was going up against broadcasting and reporting veterans Chet Huntley and David Brinley at NBC and Walter Cronkite at CBS. Like his father before him, Peter's training had been as an announcer not a reporter (it wasn't until the late 1970s before Canadian news anchors were even allowed to do actual reporting - they were announcers not news men and even belonged to different unions). Jennings' two years as ABC's anchor were horrible. He was grateful when he was relieved of the anchor chair and sent to work internationally. While most of his colleagues did a turn or two in Vietnam, Jennings was sent to a pre-civil war Beirut where he covered the Middle East and South Asia, including the Bangladesh War. He was in the Olympic Village in Munich in 1972 and his expertise in the Middle East proved invaluable in ABC's coverage. He knew everyone who was anyone in the Middle East. He was later reassigned to ABC's London Bureau but was one of the network's chief correspondents.

After ABC's experiment with using Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters as an anchor team crashed and burned the new head of ABC News, Roone Arledge came up with the idea of using three anchors in different cities - Frank Reynolds in New York, Max Robinson in Chicago, and Jennings in London. This also crashed and burned with Reynolds taking the lead role and Robinson complaining of racism to anyone who would listen (which wasn't many). Five years after Frank Reynolds became ABC's chief anchor he succumbed to Bone Cancer. He was replaced by Peter Jennings. Jennings' second period as anchor was more self assured than his first. By now he was a veteran journalist who, as someone once put it, had been to "every country with a vowel in it". Beginning in the mid-1980s Jennings and ABC News were either first or second in the network ratings for most of the past 20 years. He personally anchored ABC's full 24 hour coverage of the Millennium celebrations on January 1, 2000, and was on the air for 60 hours straight following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Jennings' personal life was tempestuous. He was married four times and divorced three and was the father fo two children. Although he became an American citizen in 2003 (scoring a perfect score on the citizenship test, something he was immensely proud of) he retained dual Canadian citizenship. He received numerous awards in his career including 14 National Emmy Awards, two George Peabody Awards, and the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award. He was named Anchor Of The Year by the Washington Journalism Review three years in a row.He reportedly started smoking at age 13 and although he quit smoking in 1988 he started again briefly in 2001 at around the time of the terrorist attacks. In April 2005 he announced that he was suffering from Lung Cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy.

No comments: