ABC anchor for more than 20 years

He disclosed in April that he had lung cancer

Peter Jennings : 1938 - 2005

August 08, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Peter Jennings, the urbane broadcaster whose dispassionate and reasoned manner at the ABC anchor desk helped see millions of viewers through such moments of national crisis as the 9/11 attacks, died yesterday of lung cancer. Mr. Jennings, who had been at the ABC anchor desk since 1983, was 67 years old.

Mr. Jennings died at his home in New York, according to ABC News President David Westin.

"Peter has been our colleague, our friend, and our leader in so many ways. None of us will be the same without him," Mr. Westin said.

Mr. Jennings announced his illness on air April 5, and his departure from the airwaves marked the passing of a triumvirate that had delivered the news to Americans each night for more than two decades. NBC's Tom Brokaw had retired in November, and Dan Rather left the CBS anchor desk in March.

Even though Mr. Brokaw's NBC newscast was the highest-rated on a nightly basis, Mr. Jennings was the anchorman most watched during major stories. Beyond his unflappable demeanor, that trust from the audience grew out of his earlier work as a foreign correspondent in such moments of crisis as the 1972 terrorist attack at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

During and immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Jennings offered a soothing sense of continuity.

"There are a lot of people who think our job is to reassure the public every night that their home, their community and their nation is safe," he told author Jeff Alan. "I don't subscribe to that at all. I subscribe to leaving people with essentially - sorry it's a cliche - a rough draft of history. Some days it's reassuring, some days it's absolutely destructive."

Mr. Jennings announced four months ago that he would begin treatment for lung cancer.

"I will continue to do the broadcast," he said, his voice husky, in a taped message that night. "On good days, my voice will not always be like this."

But although Mr. Jennings occasionally came to the office between chemotherapy treatments, he never again appeared on the air.

"He knew that it was an uphill struggle. But he faced it with realism, courage, and a firm hope that he would be one of the fortunate ones," Mr. Westin said. "In the end, he was not."

He was a top-flight correspondent who covered the Middle East, South Africa and Eastern Europe. He brought ABC prestige with his reporting in 1972 when Arab terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage at the Summer Olympics in Munich.

World News Tonight was built around Mr. Jennings' strengths, especially international reporting, said executive producer Jon Banner.

"He is the broadcast," Mr. Banner said.

Colleagues pointed to him as a mentor who pushed them to do their best work.

Mr. Jennings was first and foremost an anchor, said Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes network news in the weekly newsletter Tyndall Report.

"Urbane is a very good word for him," Mr. Tyndall said. "He's knowledgeable about the world. He takes everything in stride. He doesn't get overwhelmed by events."

Mr. Jennings, who joined ABC News in 1964, had three stints as a network anchor. He had a bumpy tenure from 1965 to 1968.

In 1997, he recalled, "I spent all these years trying to seek forgiveness for my ineptitude the first time I did it."

From 1978 to 1983, he shared anchor duties with Frank Reynolds and Max Robinson. Mr. Jennings became the sole anchor in 1983 after Mr. Reynolds died.

Mr. Jennings used his anchor status to enrich prime time with newsy specials on abortion, gun control, Haiti, Bosnia and the South American drug trade. His love for history propelled programs on the 20th century, early Christianity, John F. Kennedy's assassination and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Mr. Jennings' output reflected his wide range of interests, from UFOs to Little League baseball.

The ABC anchor also tried to reach children with specials on prejudice, AIDS and the 2001 terrorist attacks. With Todd Brewster, Jennings wrote the books The Century and In Search of America.

But the anchor said the thought of writing a memoir made him self-conscious. He was born in 1938 in Toronto. His mother, Elizabeth, was a supporter of the arts. His father, Charles, was a radio broadcaster who later became an executive at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

At age 9, he had his own radio show on the CBC, but he later dropped out of high school and attended college briefly. In 1997, he received an honorary doctorate from Carlton University in Ottawa.

That didn't keep him from winning the most prestigious honors in American television journalism, including 14 national Emmys and two Peabody Awards. He became a U.S. citizen in 2003.

The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.

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