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One of broadcasting's last true luminaries, anchorman and reporter Peter Jennings became one the most respected and trusted faces in the world of televised news. Despite never finishing high school, Jennings found early success as a young journalist in radio and local television in his native country of Canada. After impressing a network executive while covering the 1964 Democratic Convention, he was offered a position with ABC News in New York City. Within a year, Jennings was placed in the anchor's seat on the nightly news at the unbelievably young age of 26. His tenure, however, was as short as it was unimpressive, and before long he was out in the field as a Middle East correspondent for ABC. As a reporter, Jennings shone brightly, providing breaking coverage of such momentous events as the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972. Later, the more seasoned reporter was brought back take over "ABC World News Tonight" (1953- ), and in his second run at the job led the nightly broadcast to ratings gold. In addition to his regular duties as a newscaster, Jennings anchored numerous investigative specials, authored a best-selling book, won several Emmy Awards, and a Peabody Award. While at the top of his game,...
One of broadcasting's last true luminaries, anchorman and reporter Peter Jennings became one the most respected and trusted faces in the world of televised news. Despite never finishing high school, Jennings found early success as a young journalist in radio and local television in his native country of Canada. After impressing a network executive while covering the 1964 Democratic Convention, he was offered a position with ABC News in New York City. Within a year, Jennings was placed in the anchor's seat on the nightly news at the unbelievably young age of 26. His tenure, however, was as short as it was unimpressive, and before long he was out in the field as a Middle East correspondent for ABC. As a reporter, Jennings shone brightly, providing breaking coverage of such momentous events as the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972. Later, the more seasoned reporter was brought back take over "ABC World News Tonight" (1953- ), and in his second run at the job led the nightly broadcast to ratings gold. In addition to his regular duties as a newscaster, Jennings anchored numerous investigative specials, authored a best-selling book, won several Emmy Awards, and a Peabody Award. While at the top of his game, and poised to become the last of the "Big Three" with the departures of rival anchors Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, he was suddenly diagnosed with lung cancer in the summer of 2005. By August of that year, the disease had mercilessly claimed Peter Jennings, an icon of broadcast journalism, appreciated for his erudition and respected for his unassailable integrity.
Born Peter Charles Archibald Ewart Jennings on July 29, 1938 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to parents Elizabeth and Charles Jennings - a senior executive with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - he began his broadcasting career at the age of nine when he hosted a children's program on Canadian radio called "Peter's People." By his own admission, Jennings was a sub-par student and dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. He began working as a reporter at a local radio station, followed by a stint in the newsroom at Ottawa television station CJOH-TV, before briefly hosting a teen dance program titled "Club Thirteen" in 1961. The following year, he joined CTV - a rival of his father's network - as a news program anchor, during which time he covered such momentous events as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While in Atlantic City, NJ, covering the Democratic Convention in 1964, Jennings was offered a correspondent's job with ABC News in the U.S. After initially demurring, he eventually reconsidered and within months began his career at the network. Jennings was immediately seen as a rising star at ABC, which at the time lagged far behind competitors CBS and NBC. The network was so confident in his abilities that the 26-year-old reporter was named one of the co-anchors of "ABC Evening News" in 1965, making him the youngest person ever to anchor a national news broadcast. His relative inexperience proved a liability, however, especially in light of the fact that he was competing against news veterans Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley on the two other major networks. After three very tough years, the clearly under-qualified Jennings left the anchor chair and began work as a correspondent for ABC's Middle East Bureau.
Establishing the Beirut-based bureau as a worthy rival to every other news gathering organization in the world, Jennings reported stories from virtually every Arab nation as well as Israel. He became an expert on the history of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, landing the first U.S. interview with its leader, Yasser Arafat. While covering the Olympic Games in 1972, Jennings broke his first live news story as the terrible events of the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich unfolded on camera. With his intimate knowledge of the Middle East, Jennings was able to provide insight and context while discussing the Palestinian terrorists, a group and region unfamiliar to the majority of Americans at the time. In late 1974, he returned to the States to work as a Washington correspondent and to host the morning news program "AM America" (ABC, 1974-75), a short-lived precursor to the long-running "Good Morning America" (ABC, 1975- ). Within months, Jennings was reassigned as ABC's chief foreign correspondent. Although based in London, he went back into the field frequently, returning to the Middle East multiple times to cover stories. Meanwhile back in New York, the recent pairing of veteran anchorman Harry Reasoner and groundbreaking female broadcaster Barbara Walters had proved disastrous, due to their lack of chemistry, if not outright animosity. In a bold move, newly-installed ABC News president Roone Arledge took a gamble when he instituted a three-man anchor team, consisting of Frank Reynolds, Max Robison and Jennings on "ABC World News Tonight" (ABC, 1953- ).
Although Jennings' new title was officially Foreign Desk Anchor, he seemed eager to leave the studio at any opportunity, personally covering such high-profile stories as the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, the 1982 war in the Falkland Islands, and Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. After Reynolds' unexpected death in 1983, it was announced that Jennings would be taking over as sole anchor for "World News Tonight;" a change in job title that once again brought him back to New York. With anchorman Dan Rather having recently taken over for the retired Cronkite and Tom Brokaw scheduled to take the anchor's desk at NBC around the same time as Jennings, it marked the beginning of what would be known as the "Big Three Era" of network news in America. After getting off to a somewhat shaky start at the anchor desk, Jennings proved a fast learner during the presidential campaign of 1984, and handled himself admirably with his coverage of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. By the end of the decade, "World News Tonight" was frequently the top-rated news show on the air, a feat ABC News had never previously achieved. Capitalizing on this success, the anchor began hosting a series of ongoing news specials, each focusing on a single topic, beginning with "Peter Jennings Reporting: Guns" (ABC, 1990), an in-depth look at ownership of firearms in America and the ongoing, volatile dispute over gun control.
After his network broke into Saturday morning programming to cover the invasion of Iraq during the first Gulf War, a concerned Jennings anchored the first of another series of specials, this time aimed at easing the minds of youngsters, with "War in the Gulf: Answering Children's Questions" (ABC, 1991). The newsman also took particular pride in the fact that in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the mid-1990s, his nightly news broadcast refused to let the sensational celebrity crime story overshadow more important events, such as the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite this admirable journalistic ethic, as the decade wore on, ABC gradually began to lose ratings ground to NBC, in part due to the latter network enjoying a bump following their coverage of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. An ill-advised refocusing on softer, so-called "fluff pieces" only served to further tarnish the program's image. However, "World News Tonight" remained a strong second in the ratings, and as the new millennium drew near, Jennings and journalist Todd Brewster prepared a book, titled The Century, an examination of the 20th Century. Coinciding with the book's release was the airing of a massive 12-part companion miniseries, "The Century" (ABC, 1999). Two years later, his journalistic mettle and physical stamina were put to the test during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when Jennings remained in the anchor chair for a grueling 17 straight hours. With his soothing voice and calming manner, he served not only as a source of level-headed information, but as a comforting presence for millions of anxious Americans, desperate to make sense of the greatest tragedy on American soil since Dec. 7, 1941.
Deeply affected by the events surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Center, and impressed by the hundreds of people he had interviewed while researching a new book on America, Jennings made the decision to become a dual citizen of Canada and the United States in 2003. When Tom Brokaw stepped down from anchoring duties at NBC in November 2004, followed shortly by Dan Rather calling it quits at CBS due to a journalistic controversy, ABC began an advertising campaign stressing Jennings' admirable broadcasting experience. Sadly, after a sudden respiratory illness, followed by a noticeable rasp to his usually sonorous voice, on April 5, 2005 Jennings publicly announced at broadcast's end that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. With his usual candor and humility, the newsman admitted to having smoked and quit in the past, but that he had resumed smoking in the wake of 9/11. He signed off by vowing to fight the disease through chemotherapy. Filling in for Jennings would be Charles Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas. In fact, so beloved was the man within the ABC family, that Gibson closed each broadcast with the words, Gibson for closing each broadcast with the phrase, ".For Peter Jennings and all of us at ABC News, good night." Although ABC's public position was that it was merely holding down the fort until his return to the newsroom, his condition worsened precipitously over the summer. On Aug. 7, 2005, the broadcasting icon passed away, with his sign-off four months earlier having been his public goodbye. Brokaw, Rather and members of the ABC News family like Barbara Walters, Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer and Ted Koppel paid tribute to their compatriot and friend, struck down too young at age 67 years old.
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