Peter Jennings; At Last, He's Comfortable Behind ABC's Anchor Desk
Washington — The cameras were already rolling on ABC's ''World News Tonight'' when anchor man Peter Jennings heard a warning crackle through his headset: ''Man armed with gun in building.''
Quickly, Jennings grabbed his visiting four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and shoved her under his desk for protection. A reflex, his wife was to say later, from his Beirut training.
Then he continued the broadcast without missing a beat. At the end of the newscast, after the gunman had been captured, a startled audience learned of the episode.
''If we seemed a little tense during the broadcast,'' said Jennings with his near-usual aplomb, ''it's because during much of it a man with a gun has been holding a security guard hostage in the building. . . . I have covered enough hostage situations to know they are unpredictable.''
In this case, the gunman had demanded to see ABC's ''top reporter'' and to be taken to the studio where ''World News Tonight'' was being broadcast. He never made it. When the man was captured and the situation peacefully resolved, the question of how a network deals with violence on its own turf still hung in the air.
ABC News showed no footage of the man or the episode, although its local affiliate here in Washington did. The network chose not to sensationalize or publicize this incident of media violence, which turned out to be the work of one isolated and apparently deranged man. Jennings, an ABC foreign correspondent for 16 years in some of the hottest spots on the globe, had come home to a brief burst of the kind of violence that has been a sound track for much of his life abroad. But he won't tolerate the publicizing of violence on the air.
Just that morning in an interview in his office, Jennings said: ''I am genuinely angry at violence. While as a correspondent, foreign correspondent or domestic, you spend a fair amount of your life covering violent events, I think that the more you cover them, the more you realize that they don't solve a great deal and that we sometimes are used by them. . . .''
He speaks from his own experience covering violence:
''In both the case of [the 1972 Munich Olympics] seizure and the subsequent death of the Israeli athletes and the death of Americans and Lebanese in the embassy [earlier this year in Beirut], what happened was that somewhere in the back of the groups' minds they knew the media were there, and that their cause would spend 'x' hours or 'x' days on screens and front pages. I think that's what makes me angry about violence. It just seems to concentrate the mind, not just of the media, but of the audience. And we end up concentrating more on the violence than we do on the sometimes endemic problems behind the violence.''
The deep, resonant voice is familiar, but the fiery tone is not. On the air, Peter Jennings is urbane and polished, delivering even the most horrendous news with the informed composure that was his trademark as a foreign correspondent.
''He's at ease with high-tension situations . . . that icy calm takes over, even with rockets whizzing by his ear,'' says his wife, Kati Marton, a writer who was ABC's former Bonn bureau chief.
Off camera, in his office, a different man emerges. He bursts into the room like a player fresh off the soccer field - big, breezy, radiating energy. Jennings as foreign correspondent and former overseas anchor has had a professional sang-froid that almost masked his concern about the trouble spots he was covering. In fact, he has sometimes been described by critics as aloof and haughty. Now as solo anchor, the cosmopolitan pro is still visible, but more of the dynamism and warmth of his own character is emerging.
In person he is, as his wife describes him, ''electric.'' He is charged with ideas, highly articulate. The words come rushing out like kids at recess. The taut, clipped delivery on the air is a measure of his self-editing as a professional.
Throughout the interview Jennings is a study in motion. He swings into one of the bright orange chairs in the office and ends up with his feet on the desk to his right. He is, as they say in the business, telegenic.
In person, his strong, attractive face is blunter and openly boyish, the maple brown hair looks mussed as though he combs it with his fingers, and the brown eyes that miss very little are flecked with gold. He is warm, casual as old socks, and about as aloof as a teddy bear. Although he has the grace of an actor on camera, he is tall and big-boned, with an occasional puppyish awkwardness.
One of the promotional spots ABC News has been running features Jennings saying, ''We realize that what we tell you every night . . . really doesm affect your life.''
How does he want to affect his viewers' lives? ''To illuminate things which we hope affect the widest possible viewership on a given night,'' he says. ''And what you really do in a nightly broadcast is, in a sense, pick your targets'' - targets as diverse as international trade, drought in the plains states, and the August march on Washington. Or the direction of American labor today.
In one vivid, in-depth Labor Day segment, Jennings interviewed top labor leaders but also did his own legwork around the country; viewers saw him hunkered down next to a woman at a sewing machine for an interview in a Southern textile mill.
Jennings also sees the broadcast as a means of briefing viewers: ''We brief in many cases . . . by the very nature of the time constraint. And there are stories on which you can keep a running brief. It is not necessary every day to keep a record, say, on the ongoing McFarlane mission to Beirut, the President's special envoy to the Middle East. . . . I'm not the first nor the last to suggest that 22 minutes is a ludicrous amount of time in which to inform the public about what's going on in the world.''
And, he says, ''while I take some exception to those people who say that we who are in television news are in the entertainment business, that does not suggest . . . there should not be moments . . . in any broadcast when you don't entertain people by simply offering them a slice of live society or another society which they find entertaining.''
He often wraps up the nightly broadcast with what the news business calls ''a brightener'' - a feature about anything from ''the great pine tar debate,'' over baseball player George Brett's resin-coated bat, to a piece on ''the scraggly little yellow things'' known as baby condors.
Jennings is putting his brand on ABC News, in part, with his writing. This showed the night it was formally announced that he would become ABC's solo anchor, replacing the multi-anchor concept that included the late Frank Reynolds in Washington, Max Robbins in Chicago, and Jennings himself in London.
He began his broadcast with the fighting in Chad: ''It's a nasty little war in an uninhabitable place.''
He doesn't write every word of each newscast, ''but it all goes through my typewriter.''
Anyone who has watched the articulate and informed Jennings report over the years might assume that this Ottawa-born journalist had graduated from one of the top Canadian universities, then polished off his education with graduate work at Oxford or perhaps Cambridge.
He is a high school dropout who is literally a self-made man in the complex world of broadcast journalism. He did have his own radio show, ''Peter's Corner, '' at 11, over the protests of his father, a vice-president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He was a huge success and got lots of fan mail.
At school, however, he dialed out.
His sister, Sarah Jennings, a radio producer in Ottawa, remembers: ''He was a naughty boy, and was caned regularly at school. One day the junior headmaster told father how hard he'd caned him. But Peter came back an hour later and complimented him on giving him only one bruise.''
That sort of unflinching bravado may have prepared him for the punishing life of a foreign correspondent under fire. His sister says that, like Winston Churchill, ''he didn't have to go to college to succeed.''
Instead, he and his father made a deal that he would try banking. And he did - for two years - until he bolted to become a radio reporter at CFJR in Rockville, Ontario. He quickly rose to become co-anchor of CTV's national news program.
When ABC News snapped him up in 1964 to cover the South and civil rights he was still in his early 20s. ABC, then on a youth kick for ratings, made him the youngest network anchor in history, at 26, up against seasoned TV kings like Huntley-Brinkley. When ABC called from New York to crown him anchor, he says, ''I practically wept on the phone, because it wasn't something I wanted to do at all, and I did it for three years.''
In her book ''The Evening Stars: The Making of the Network News Anchor,'' Barbara Matusow describes Jennings's performance as anchor princeling as ''disastrous.'' He not only looked too immature for the job, she suggests, but also came across as ''vain and conceited to many of his peers, too upper-class and too expensively tailored.''
That image has changed radically with the nearly two decades Jennings has logged as a foreign correspondent, paying his dues and earning the respect of his peers. He says now, ''I just wasn't ready (to be anchor). I was eminently underqualified.''
Dean Fischer, former US State Department spokesman and now deputy chief of correspondents for Time magazine, says, ''I have a tremendous admiration for his reporting ability.'' Mr. Fischer is Jennings's former brother-in-law from his second marriage (Kati Marton is his third wife). He describes Jennings as ''charming, articulate, sensitive, and at the same time . . . somewhat abrasive in personal contacts - (although) not as much as he used to be.''
ABC ''Nightline'' anchor Ted Koppel, who has known Jennings since they both covered the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964, says: ''In the intervening years he got out and became one of the best foreign correspondents in any medium ,'' covering everything from Anwar Sadat's funeral to the Iranian hostage crisis.
In fact, Koppel asserts, Jennings ''is now the classiest performer on the air.''
ABC's State Department correspondent, Barrie Dunsmore, a fellow Canadian, has known Jennings for 20 years and is godfather of his one-year-old son, Christopher.''
There is a very strong current of charm'' eddying around Jennings, he says, ''a charm about the way he handles people, male and female. But to be around Peter is like being at the center of a hurricane. . . . We have vacationed together, and taking a vacation with Peter is like going to summer camp: First there's swimming, then sailing, then tennis, then it's only lunch, and there's much more before dinner. He's a very exciting person, but he wears you out. People find it disorienting; it's really unrelenting. He tends to wind down a little more now that he has two children. He's calmer now, but there's still an awful lot of energy there.''
Kati Marton agrees. ''I have to put brakes on his feet to get a full conversation out of him.''
Even on a vacation or plane flight he soaks up information from anyone around.
''He grabs people and wants to know everything they know,'' his wife says. ''He has a constant hunger to know make up for his early lack of formal education. . . . He squeezes people for whatever (information) he can get. He's obsessive. His life and work are interchangeable.''
She describes him as ''incapable of dissembling, loyal, disgustingly good at sports,'' fond of Mozart, Bartok, Eskimo art, and peanut butter and onion sandwiches.
They met in London when she flew in from Bonn for ''acclimitization'' and decided to hop over to Paris for a weekend with her sister. He growled that foreign correspondents do not get the weekend off.
When she was suddenly sent to Belfast, he was ''guilt stricken'' about the way he'd spoken to her, so he did a lot of research for her, put together a contact list, and briefed her.
''It just sort of grew from there,'' says Jennings of their marriage. She was at first put off by his public image as ''the superglamorous 007 of television, '' but says this skepticism crumbled when she found how hard he had worked to shed that image.
He calls his wife ''a woman of letters,'' is proud of her book, ''Wallenberg'' (about the Swedish diplomat who saved hundreds of Jewish people from the Nazis), and of the novel she's now working on.
The novel springs from her own exotic life. She is a naturalized American citizen, born in Budapest to parents who were both journalists - her mother a reporter for UPI, her father AP bureau chief. Both were falsely accused of being CIA agents, imprisoned, then freed after the Hungarian Revolution, when she was 8.
Meanwhile, the network news ratings race is on. Initially, there was some concern at ABC over using a Canadian as sole anchor. But Jennings points out that he's familiar with the United States, having been in all 50 states as a reporter, covering everything from space shots to the assassination of President Kennedy. In fact, the scariest moment he has ever had as a correspondent was in covering a street demonstration at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 when a cop aimed a pistol directly at him.
Jennings has won the prestigious George Foster Peabody award as well as several Overseas Press club awards for foreign reporting. About the only trace of a Canadian accent evident in his polished voice is on words like ''about,'' which he sometimes pronounces ''aboot.''
With Jennings as anchor and senior editor, ABC News is currently holding the No. 2 position in the TV ratings, ahead of NBC's Tom Brokaw but trailing CBS's Dan Rather.
Rather is said to be making $2 million a year, and Brokaw $1.5 million. Jennings's salary has been reported at $900,000 annually. That figure is a rumor and it's wrong, he says, but he declines to set the record straight.
He does admit that anchor men are paid ''too much'' because high ratings have an effect on sales and ''it's a tenuous career.''
''But I'm not going to lead the fight against being well paid,'' he says with a smile.
Is there pressure on him to overtake Dan Rather, whose ratings rose after he donned a sweater as anchor man? ''Of course there is,'' he admits. ''But absolutely nobody's kicking me in the head or stepping on my hands. This is a competitive business. But I know that does not impinge on my journalistic values. Management knows that.''
Still, there's a navy blue sleeveless sweater hanging on the back of Peter Jennings's office door. Does he plan wear it on the air?
''No,'' he says with a grin, ''I don't.''