Jennings, Peter Charles Archibald Ewart

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Jennings, Peter Charles Archibald Ewart

(b. 29 July 1938 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; d. 7 August 2005 in New York City), television news anchor and correspondent for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) who was one of the most influential and honored journalists of his time.

Born into a prominent Canadian family, Jennings gained his first experience with broadcasting while still a child. His father, Charles Jennings, was the principal radio announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) during the 1930s and was later the network’s head of radio and television programming. Jennings often sat in the radio booth while his father read the news or introduced a concert. At age nine, Jennings became the host of Peter’s Program, a popular weekly children’s show on the CBC. His mother, Elizabeth Ewart (Osborne) Jennings, came from a wealthy family. Jennings and his younger sister enjoyed many of the advantages of the affluent, including private school, riding lessons, and travel to Europe, growing up first in Toronto and later in Ottawa, after the CBC moved its offices to the Canadian capital.

An indifferent student, Jennings never completed high school. He left the elite Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, at the end of ninth grade to attend a public school in Ottawa. After one more year of study, he dropped out and took a job as a teller at a Toronto branch of the Royal Canadian Bank. Inspired by his father’s example, he decided to pursue a career in broadcasting, but antinepotism regulations prevented the CBC from hiring him, even though he passed an audition. With his father’s help, he instead found a job at the radio station CFJR in the small town of Brockville, Ontario, covering the news as well as hosting popular music programs. In 1961 he moved to television, working first for one of Canada’s early private television stations, CJOH, in Ottawa. In 1962 he joined CTV, the nation’s first commercial television network, and quickly became a coanchor of its daily newscast.

Jennings’s work soon gained the attention of the ABC News president Elmer Lower, who offered him a job with the network. Jennings joined ABC on 3 August 1964, with his main assignment being to cover the civil rights movement. On 1 February 1965 he became the anchor of ABC’s evening newscast, which was renamed Peter Jennings with the News. He was taking over a program that was last among the three major-network newscasts in prestige and ratings. Both the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had expanded their evening newscasts from fifteen to thirty minutes in September 1963, but ABC did not follow suit until January 1967.

Jennings was only twenty-six years old when he began this new assignment and thus lacked the experience and reputation of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the cohosts of NBC’s top-rated program, and Walter Cron-kite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News. One of Jennings’s assets, his youthful good looks, in fact became a liability, as critics dismissed him as “pretty Peter.” Cronkite quipped that makeup artists disguised the bags under his own eyes but each night painted them on Jennings’s face. Lower had hoped that Jennings would help the news program achieve ratings success similar to that of several popular ABC entertainment programs that attracted youthful audiences. Viewers, however, disliked both Jennings’s Canadian pronunciations of familiar words and the mistakes that he made because, as he later explained, he “really didn’t know anything about America.” The ABC newscast remained in third place, and Jennings wanted to escape the anchor desk for reporting assignments. He did so at the end of 1967.

In international reporting, Jennings found the professional success and satisfaction that he had not experienced in the studio. After covering U.S. politics during the election year of 1968, he went to Beirut, where in 1969 he became the first U.S. television reporter based in the Arab world. During the next five years Jennings developed a detailed knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs, traveling extensively in the region and reading avidly about its politics and culture. He covered the Yom Kippur War, fought between Israel and a coalition led by Syria and Egypt in 1973, as well as the subsequent embargo on oil shipments to the United States imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. He achieved a journalistic coup by gaining the first interview televised in the United States with Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His reporting for the documentary Sadat: Action Biography helped earn the program a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in 1974.

Since ABC had no regular correspondent in South Asia, Jennings seized the opportunity to report on the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, for which work he won a National Headliner Award. He was at the Summer Olympics in Munich in September 1972, anticipating a respite from the conflict he so frequently covered, when terrorists murdered two Israeli athletes and seized nine others as hostages, all of whom died in a rescue attempt. Jennings drew near enough to the Israeli dormitory to provide harrowing descriptions of the masked terrorists. He also offered viewers expert analysis of Black September, the organization responsible for perpetrating the violence. His work helped ABC win an Emmy Award for special events coverage.

After a stint as news announcer and as a reporter based in Washington, D.C., for A.M. America, an ABC morning program cancelled in October 1975 after a ten-month run, Jennings became the network’s chief foreign correspondent. Based in London, Jennings considered the assignment a “dream job,” as it allowed him to cover stories in Europe, Asia, and Africa and to ensure that international reporting was an important part of the network’s newscasts. On 10 July 1978, while remaining in London, Jennings took on the additional job of coanchor of ABC’s renamed evening newscast, World News Tonight. The program was the creation of Roone Arledge, the highly successful head of ABC Sports, who in May 1977 also became president of the network’s news department. Arledge was determined to raise ABC’s ratings and stature and decided on the unprecedented format of three anchors for World News Tonight. Jennings thus shared responsibilities with Max Robinson in Chicago and with Frank Reynolds in Washington, D.C. He enjoyed being part of this triumvirate, as the arrangement still allowed him considerable freedom to report outside the studio. He often reported from Tehran, for example, during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–1981. Jennings’s years in London were also a time of happiness in his personal life. In 1979 he married his third wife, Kati Marton, a former chief of the ABC news bureau in Bonn, Germany. They had two children before divorcing in 1993. (He was first married to Valerie Godsoe, and he married his second wife, Anouchka Malouf, in 1973. Neither marriage produced children.)

The World News Tonight triumvirate lasted until the spring of 1983, when Reynolds, by then the principal anchor, became sick. Reynolds never informed Arledge or most of his colleagues at ABC about the severity of his illness, and his death from bone cancer on 20 July 1983 came as a shock. Arledge then decided to change the format of World News Tonight and offered Jennings the position of sole anchor. Jennings accepted only after some hesitation, as he wanted to report the news, not just read it, and he remembered the problems he had encountered as an anchor in the mid-1960s. He realized, however, that he would be bringing experience and maturity to the anchor desk that he previously lacked. He also decided that he in fact had little choice; rejecting the offer, he believed, would have led to a radical—and probably detrimental—change in his career. When ABC announced his appointment, he told reporters, “It is a very big job. Am I emotionally ready? Am I qualified? I think I am.” Jennings conducted his first broadcast from the anchor desk at ABC News headquarters in New York City on 9 September 1983.

In his new role Jennings prepared meticulously, giving special attention to expanding his knowledge of American politics and culture. Yet ratings fell, as World News Tonight slipped to third place among the three major-network newscasts in 1984, after often holding the second position before Reynolds’s death. The competition for viewers was fierce, since ratings points determined how much the networks could charge advertisers. Changes in the broadcasting industry, including the acquisition of ABC by Capital Cities Communications in March 1985, intensified the pressure on news divisions to make or increase profits. Network rivalries often took on personal dimensions, as for the first time since the mid-1950s the three major networks had single anchors for their newscasts: Dan Rather at top-rated CBS, Tom Brokaw at NBC, and Jennings at ABC. Many viewers watched the news program featuring the anchor whose personal qualities they found most attractive. Arledge at times complained that Jennings’s style was too detached or aristocratic to appeal to American viewers. Yet Jennings earned viewer loyalty with his vast knowledge, plainspoken eloquence, and reassuring manner in times of uncertainty or peril. His coverage of the fatal explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986, for which he remained on the air for eleven hours, earned praise from viewers and colleagues alike. In the late 1980s World News Tonight claimed first place in the ratings, a position it retained until the mid-1990s. For the following decade the program held second place, behind NBC.

Even though he spent most of his time in the anchor chair, Jennings remained a reporter. Like other anchors, he traveled to the sites of major stories, such as to Germany for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War, to Oklahoma City for the 1995 terrorist bombing, and to Iraq for the beginning of the 2003 U.S. invasion. He also reported for many documentaries, including for the occasional prime-time series Peter Jennings Reporting. Two of those programs, on gun ownership and violence (1990) and on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (1995), earned Peabody Awards, and one, on the assassination of John F. Kennedy (2003), received an Edward R. Murrow Award. In 1999 Jennings hosted a series of television programs aired on ABC and on the History Channel based on his best-selling book The Century (1998), coauthored by Todd Brewster, a lively account of individuals and events that shaped the previous one hundred years. A second book coauthored by Brewster, In Search of America (2002), an examination of the effects of the nation’s founding ideals on contemporary life, also became an ABC series. Even though audiences for evening newscasts diminished in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries because of competition from cable channels and the Internet, Jennings still attracted huge numbers of viewers during extraordinary events. He provided award-winning and indefatigable coverage of the coming of the new millennium and of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and their aftermath.

At the end of World News Tonight on 5 April 2005, Jennings revealed that he had lung cancer. He said that he would resume his anchor duties when his health allowed, but the effects of chemotherapy treatments and the progress of his disease prevented him from doing so. He died at his home in New York City on 7 August 2005 in the presence of his two children and his fourth wife, Kayce Freed, whom he had married in 1997. After a memorial service held at Carnegie Hall that was attended by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police honor guard, Jennings was cremated, with his remains divided between his homes on Long Island and in Gatineau Hills, Ontario.

Jennings’s death ended an era in broadcast news during which anchors became international celebrities. For more than two decades beginning in the early 1980s, Jennings, Rather, and Brokaw were the “Big Three” of television news. The latter two retired only months before Jennings succumbed to cancer. In succession, Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw had each hosted the nation’s top-rated evening newscast. Each had a distinctive style and attracted millions of loyal viewers. Jennings played a critical role in lifting ABC News to parity with its two main broadcast competitors in popularity and stature. He won many accolades for his work, including sixteen Emmy Awards. His urbane manner, at first an apparent liability, ultimately became one of his strongest assets. A Canadian who attained U.S. citizenship in May 2003, he had the cosmopolitan experience to help viewers understand contemporary issues in a world of globalization. Although he earned millions of dollars each year and had many fans as well as viewers, he was, as Rather explained, “a little uncomfortable—very uncomfortable—with the word ‘star’ and a little uncomfortable with the word ‘anchor.’” He thought of himself first and foremost as a reporter, and he was one of the best of his time.

Useful accounts of Jennings’s career at ABC are in Barbara Matusow, The Evening Stars: The Making of the Network News Anchor (1983); Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg, Anchors: Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and the Evening News (1990); and Marc Gunther, The House That Roone Built: The Inside Story of ABC News (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Aug. 2005).

Chester Pach

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