Book review: Peter Jennings – A Reporter’s Life

Peter Jennings was a sometimes a harsh taskmaster, but it was never about personal ego, it was about making the broadcast better, and it showed.

I used to watch ABC World News almost religiously and it was because of Peter Jennings. Now I find the program almost unwatchable, and I have to think that the late anchorman would probably feel the same way.

Of course, I was watching when he told us, on-air on April 5, 2005, that he had lung cancer. And I was a viewer when Charles Gibson announced he had died on August 7, and I felt a profound sense of sadness, grief that continues as the broadcast he put forth has turned, in large measure, into the infotainment that he could not stand.

Lynn Scher. ABC reporter contacted Peter’s widow, Kayce Freed Jennings, and suggested that the interviews conducted for the ABC News special, “Peter Jennings: Reporter” in August 2005 would make a good book. Kayce initially said no, so Lynn Scher did it anyway, just for the family and close colleagues, presented a year later. This convinced Kayce that a book WAS viable, not just to honor Peter, but to discuss journalistic values. The book, edited by Kate Darton, Kayce Jennings, and Scher, is a story told by some seven dozen colleagues, competitors, family members, friends, and newsmakers.

It relates his life, born in Toronto in 1938, the son of Canada’s Edward R. Murrow, Charles Jennings. Peter was smart, but a lazy student, dropping out of high school. But, because of his charisma and good looks, he finds himself in the family business in Canada. He joins ABC News in 1964, and in 1965, at the age of 26, becomes the anchor of the evening news, a job for which he was indisputably unqualified, especially against competition such as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, and Walter Cronkite on CBS.

He becomes a field reporter, first in Rome, then Beirut. It was he who reported live from the Olympics in Munich about the kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes.

In 1978, ABC News created this troika anchor chair with Frank Reynolds in Washington covering the government/politics segments, Max Robinson in Chicago on domestic news, and Jennings, now the chief foreign correspondent, dealing with international news from London. By 1983, he was the sole anchor, working out of New York City.

It is at this point that the broadcast started to get good. His exacting standards, his antipathy for the soft stories, made ABC News #1. He even eschewed the O.J. Simpson trial story until he became convinced it said something about the racial divide in the United States.

Jennings often fought for extended coverage of topics that, perhaps, people didn’t know they needed to know, about AIDS, Guantanamo, religion, racism, the Arab world, and much more. He had an insatiable curiosity, and seem to act as though everyone else did, or should.

He spent 24 hours ringing in the millennium, then was on air for over 60 hours after 9/11, including a wonderful program the Saturday after, trying to explain the event to children, which I watched too because I needed someone to explain it to me. Peter had a knack, a need to make sure the story was told well, including the context in which the events took place. He was sometimes a harsh taskmaster in this regard, virtually EVERYONE said, but it was never about personal ego, it was about making the broadcast better, and it showed.

I enjoyed the narrative, and the various remembrances, interspersed with words from Peter Jennings, made it a surprisingly interesting book to read.

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