Passing of an era - and an urbane anchor - in TV news
WASHINGTON — It takes a small army of correspondents, producers, and technicians to produce a 30-minute television news broadcast.
But the anchor sets the tone. And the tone Peter Jennings set at ABC's "World News Tonight" during his 22 years in the anchor chair helped shape the broadcast and reflected the qualities of the man himself: calm, curious, cosmopolitan.
Mr. Jennings, who died Sunday, established the first American television news bureau in the Arab world in 1968, serving as ABC's bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, for seven years. He was known for his keen interest in international news well before the 9/11 terror attacks.
The ABC News anchor will be remembered for "Middle East coverage and for discovering that part of the world before most of the mainstream media did," said Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University and former ABC News correspondent. Jennings's reporting "was more cosmopolitan in scope, more internationalist in bent" than his network competitors, he said.
The longtime face of ABC News was also a pioneer in broadcast coverage of religion. "He was absolutely instrumental" in getting mainstream media to cover issues of religion and spirituality, says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "It was a testament to his own interest in the subject, and the balance and sobriety he brought to the question."
At one time, ABC News had the only full-time network correspondent devoted to religion, reportedly at Jennings' insistence. And he led a documentary team which produced the highly rated 2000 special "The Search for Jesus."
The urbane on-air presence Jennings projected was the result of intense preparation, spurred in part by his lack of formal education. The son of a Canadian broadcasting pioneer, Jennings dropped out of high school to follow in his father's footsteps. "He was a student for the rest of his life ... because he had dropped out so early," ABC Anchor Ted Koppel said. Colleagues say Jennings would travel with an extra suitcase to hold books he would read on his innumerable reporting trips.
"The overriding thing about Peter is that he was curious about everything," said Kathryn Christensen, former executive producer of ABC World News Tonight and now vice president at Wall Street Journal Television. "He always did his homework. But he always wanted to do more homework. He always wanted to see the other side of the coin. He never accepted conventional wisdom. That could be challenging at times, but he always wanted to know more.... He could be quite contrarian."
"I have never spent a day in my adult life where I didn't learn something," Jennings once told the Saturday Evening Post, "and if there is a born-again quality to me, that's it." The anchor's favorite question was "What surprised you?" according to Todd Brewster, who wrote a book "The Century" with Jennings.
Jennings's passing comes at a critical juncture in the broadcast news business and brings to an end an era dominated by three well-known long-term anchors. NBC's Tom Brokaw retired in December and CBS's Dan Rather departed the anchor chair in March.
Over the past 20 years, the network newscasts have steadily lost audiences as the influence of cable news and the Internet has increased. The big three broadcast newscasts collectively attract about 36 percent of the households watching TV in their time slot, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research, down from 72 percent in 1980.
Even so, the network evening news programs jointly deliver 25 million viewers a night, making them an extremely important news source. The path the broadcasts take will be influenced, in part, by who ends up sitting in the anchor chairs.
Until Mr. Jennings left the broadcast April 5 because of illness, ABC News had hoped to capitalize on the familiarity and continuity he brought at a time when NBC and CBS had new anchors.
Of course, Jennings brought more to ABC News than most viewers saw, including a real affection for those engaged in sometimes dangerous business of covering the news. On its Monday morning tribute, ABC News ran footage of Jennings choking up on the air when talking about how ABC correspondent Charles Glass had been taken hostage in Lebanon.
• Dante Chinni contributed to this report.