Jennings, Peter (1938—)

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Jennings, Peter (1938—)

The man who would eventually help to usher in the age of the super-anchor, veteran journalist Peter Jennings, got an early start to his broadcast career. At age nine he was the host of Peter's People, a short-lived Saturday morning children's radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. For the precocious Jennings, journalism qualified as a family business. When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was established in the mid-1930s, his father Charles Jennings became its first voice, and was known as the "Edward R. Murrow of Canada."

Jennings was born in Toronto. A high school drop-out, he never finished tenth grade. Initially discouraged by his father from choosing journalism as a career, Jennings worked as a bank teller for three years before joining a small private radio station in Brockville, Ontario. In 1961 Jennings made the transition to television, joining one of Canada's first private television stations. There his duties included everything from reporting news to hosting a Canadian version of American Bandstand. When his television station became part of CTV, Canada's first national private chain, Jennings was appointed co-anchor of the national newscast. His work in this role caught the attention of ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation) news executives in New York.

Hired by ABC's World News Tonight in 1964, Jennings and his first wife, Canadian Valerie Godsoe, moved to New York City. Within a year, the twenty-six year-old Jennings became America's youngest national network anchor ever, an appointment that failed because Jennings lacked journalistic experience and in-depth knowledge of the United States. After three years of miserable ratings Jennings resigned and was replaced by Frank Reynolds. The network made Jennings a traveling correspondent, and he quickly headed overseas. In 1969 he opened a permanent ABC bureau in Beirut, Lebanon, the first time an American-based television reporter had a full-time post in the Arab world. Jennings spent seven years in Lebanon as Beirut bureau chief, during which time he also met and married his second wife, Anouchka.

In 1975, Jennings returned to Washington, D.C., to anchor A.M. America, the predecessor to Good Morning America. Disliking both the job and the city, however, he arranged a transfer to London by 1977. In 1978, while still posted in London, Jennings was named co-anchor of the ABC evening news as part of an innovative three-anchor system that included Frank Reynolds in Washington and Max Robinson in Chicago. Referring to his time in London as his "dream job," because the triumvirate system gave him both the flexibility to travel and the status to cover major news stories, he stayed in the position for six years. While in London he met and married his third wife, Kati Marton, in 1979. By 1982, the couple had two children, Elizabeth and Christopher.

In 1983 one of the anchoring triumvirate, Frank Reynolds, became ill with cancer, and Jennings reluctantly returned to the United States to fill in during his illness. In an interview he explained his problem with being sole anchor: "Anchor people are slaves to the daily broadcast. Very high-priced slaves I grant you. But slaves." Instead, Jennings prefers field reporting, and has been known to speak with a "little regret about not being in the trenches covering stories." When Reynolds died, however, Jennings was re-appointed to the sole anchor position he had held sixteen years earlier.

Jennings and his peers Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw have transformed the role of network news anchor into superstar journalist. In their book Anchors, authors Robert and Gerald Goldberg explain that while Walter Cronkite was "the original 800-pound gorilla," Jennings, Rather, and Brokaw have "acquired a different order of magnitude." These super-anchors command huge salaries, and have their trustworthiness figures measured just like the president. Acting as the "living logos" of the network news divisions, they provide news to more Americans than any other source.

Some analysts point to Jennings' coverage of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion as a career milestone, from which point his "credibility, both internally at ABC and with the American public, has continued to grow." Once described as a "natural anchor" who had to work hard "to turn himself into a reporter," Jennings had grown into his role as star journalist. Acclaimed for his ability to adlib in live broadcasts, Jennings has said that he considers this skill to be a critical function of anchors. Despite the fact that the majority of Jennings's editorial work involves rewriting rather than writing, colleagues have described his writing style as "distinctive," and "cooler" than that of Rather or Brokaw. Analysts have noted a tendency for Jennings to reverse the traditional order of a news story, for example, putting the punch line before a joke. Described as "perhaps the most hands-on of any of the anchors," Jennings reportedly spends a great deal of time working with correspondents on the phone and editing their stories. While co-workers often laud his willingness to spend time working with people, sharing ideas, contacts, and opinions, some have complained about a tendency toward micro-managing and perfectionism. Most of all, however, observers note that Jennings applies those stringent standards to himself. Reportedly never satisfied with his performance, he has been frequently quoted as saying, "I always tend to look at the program in terms of how many nights I can be proud of. The top score is rarely more than two and a half a week. Never close to four."

The recipient of many awards, to date Jennings has won the Washington Journalism Review's award for the nation's best anchor five times. A nine-time Emmy recipient for news reporting, he also has received several Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University and Overseas Press Club Awards. In one year alone Jennings won Harvard University's Goldsmith Career Award for excellence in journalism and the Radio and Television News Directors Paul White Award, chosen by the three major networks' news directors. In a 1995 tribute, the Boston Globe echoed the earlier praise given to Jennings's father, saying that Jennings had inherited Edward R. Murrow's mantle.

—Courtney Bennett

Further Reading:

Goldberg, Robert, and Gerald Jay Goldberg. Anchors: Brokaw, Jennings, Rather and the Evening News. Secaucus, New Jersey, Birch Lane Press, 1990.

Jennings, Peter, and Todd Brewster. The Century. New York, Doubleday, 1998.

"Peter Jennings." December 14, 1997.

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Jennings, Peter (1938—)

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