ABC's Jennings has lung cancer

He will anchor news when health allows

April 06, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Last night in a dramatic address to viewers at the end of World News Tonight, ABC anchorman Peter Jennings told viewers in a wavering and gravelly voice that he has lung cancer.

"Finally this evening, a brief note about change," the 66-year-old newscaster began. "Some of you have noticed the last several days that I was not covering the pope. ... I have learned in the last couple of days that I have lung cancer. Yes, I was a smoker until about 20 years ago, and I was weak and I smoked over 9/11. But whatever the reason, the news does slow you down a bit."

Jennings, who will begin outpatient chemotherapy treatment next week, vowed to continue at the anchor desk: "On good days, my voice will not always be like this," he added.

ABC News President David Westin said that he also expects Jennings to continue at the anchor desk - health permitting.

"It's both Peter's and my expectation that he will anchor World News Tonight during the period of treatment to the extent that he can do so comfortably, but we should also expect him to be off the broadcast from time to time, depending on how he feels," Westin said in a memo to the ABC newsroom.

In Jennings' absence, Charles Gibson of Good Morning America, Elizabeth Vargas of the newsmagazine 20/20 and others will act as substitutes, Westin said. Vargas anchored last night's newscast.

Jennings had informed his senior staff of the diagnosis yesterday morning: "Yes, it was quite a surprise," he said in an e-mail, though ABC staffers confirmed that he had not been feeling well for several months and had avoided taking a number of overseas trips.

`A sad moment'

The reaction within and outside ABC News was one of sadness and shock.

"It's a sad moment," CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer said yesterday. "We've covered many stories together over the years, and my heart goes out to him. I wish him a speedy recovery, and I hope they diagnosed it at an early stage so they can deal with it and he can stay in the anchor chair for many years to come. Whenever this happens to anyone in our journalistic family, it's sad and shocking. ... There's been so much change at ABC in just the last two weeks."

The news of Jennings' cancer comes less than a week after ABC announced that Ted Koppel would leave his post as anchor of Nightline by the end of the year, after 25 years. It is another jolting reminder of a sweeping changing of the guard that has occurred in network television news.

The shift began in December when NBC's anchorman, Tom Brokaw, retired after 21 years and has gained momentum in recent months. In March, Dan Rather was forced to resign from the CBS Evening News after 24 years at the anchor desk. Add Barbara Walters, who left 20/20 in November, and a generation of the most familiar faces in network news - the anchormen and women who collectively offered emotional ballast to millions of viewers for decades - is vanishing from the main stage of nightly network television.

The pope's death Saturday was the first major event experienced by viewers without the once-dominant news triumvirate of Rather, Brokaw and Jennings. Of that generation of newsmen, only PBS' Jim Lehrer remains in place - at the weeknight anchor desk on public television, where he has been since 1975.

The Canadian-born Jennings, who has won 14 Emmys since joining ABC News in 1964, has been anchor of World News Tonight since 1983. Throughout his career, he has distinguished himself through international reporting.

He opened the first American TV bureau in the Arab world (Beirut in 1969) and three years later became a household name when he covered the attack on Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. In the late 1970s, Jennings was the London-based component of an ill-fated, last-place three-man anchor team.

Leading the network

But since taking over as solo anchor and managing editor 21 years ago, when Frank Reynolds died of cancer, Jennings has led the network to prestige and major ratings gains. During the first half of the 1990s, World News Tonight was the most watched nightly newscast on network TV - and regularly the preferred choice for major events. In recent years, it has finished in second place, behind NBC's Nightly News. But the gap has narrowed to as slim a margin as 20,000 viewers a week between the two front-runners.

"All of us at ABC have watched over the years as Peter has led us on various assignments with strength and with courage," Westin said in an e-mail to the newsroom yesterday. "We've done the best to support him in these endeavors. Now he's been given a tough assignment. He's already bringing to this new challenge the courage and strength we've seen so often in his reporting from the field and in anchoring ABC News. ... Peter will once again lead the way, but we will stand with him at every turn."

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society, which attributed 160,440 deaths last year to the disease.

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