With an urbane, sophisticated demeanor and an intelligence informed by years of on-the-ground reporting, Peter Jennings, who died at 67 of lung cancer on Aug. 7, led ABC’s World News Tonight for more than two decades. Although as an anchor he never had his identity attached to a single great event, as Tom Brokaw did with the fall of the Berlin Wall or Dan Rather did with Tiananmen Square, he orchestrated a star-studded network news team that for much of his tenure captured a larger audience than its competitors. Like a great actor working with a sterling supporting cast, Jennings, with a flair that was both understated and unchallenged, showcased important contributions from Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer, Sam Donaldson, and the other stars of the news division in a way that only underscored his primacy. If he lacked Rather’s clenched intensity and Brokaw’s unforced warmth, he proved that what he brought to the table — coolheadedness, authority, and a belief in the importance of perspective — were the signal qualities of a great anchorman as well. As his colleague George Stephanopoulos put it, ”He could take a chaotic and scary world and make sense of it.”
Born into broadcasting in 1938 — his father, Charles, was a pioneer in Canadian radio and television — Jennings cut his radio teeth at age 9 with Peter’s Program, a radio music show for kids (his salary: $5 a week; most requested song: ”The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”). His parents regularly hosted luminaries from politics and the arts and sent their son to an elite school.
But Jennings nearly threw his early advantages away. Although obviously intelligent, he preferred comics and sports to studies, and he dropped out of school before completing 10th grade, a decision that embarrassed him for years. When he broke into broadcasting, it was at small independent radio and TV stations — getting up at 3 a.m. to do farm broadcasts, spinning platters on a teen dance show, singing to a beauty pageant winner when the designated singer was too inebriated to perform — till finally he became the Parliament Hill reporter for a Canadian national news station.
In 1964, ABC, a young-skewing network that was then third among the U.S. networks in ratings and prestige, hired Jennings as a correspondent. Barely a year later, at 26, he was promoted to anchor. ”I was the youngest guy around with my hair and my teeth who could string two words together,” Jennings once explained. ”And they said, ‘Okay — you be the anchorman!”’ Though poised and capable, Jennings found his youth and inexperience hurt his credibility. Once he joined rivals Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite on a panel, and someone in the audience chided them for being mere showmen. ”My only concession to show business,” Huntley replied, ”is that I stop in the makeup room and have these bags under my eyes painted out.” Whereupon Cronkite quipped, ”Yeah, Jennings steps in and has them painted on.”
The only solution was to get into the field. In 1967, Jennings surrendered the anchor desk. He soon relocated to the Middle East, reporting from all the countries in the region, getting to know the major players and burying himself in the books he had avoided as a youth. He also realized that he was ABC’s only correspondent east of the Mediterranean. New York soon got used to hearing him say ”I’m only three hours from there” and hopping on a plane to Bangladesh, Nigeria, Hong Kong — wherever news was happening.