In a career that often required him to report on the cruel twists endured by others, Peter Jennings this spring found himself telling the American public about fate’s pitiless incursion into his own life. The ABC News anchor of 22 years had achieved a rarefied status: Both Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw had recently surrendered their network evening news posts, leaving the field clear for Jennings as the last, and some would say best, of the anchors who came to the fore when broadcast networks’ news operations drove the national discussion. But instead of being able to savor his preeminence, Jennings was forced by lung cancer to step down from World News Tonight in April to wage the battle that he lost last week.
It was an extraordinary career, marked by 14 national Emmys, two George Foster Peabody Awards and countless other honors. But statistics and official accolades hardly capture the central role Jennings played, with his steadying manner and thoroughgoing intelligence, in the way we have understood the world of the past two decades. A Canadian high school dropout, Jennings nonetheless led a quintessentially American life, reinventing himself and meeting with nearly boundless success. When he died, at 67, world leaders and major figures in the news business spoke of their admiration for Jennings and his work. Hoping for a more personal glimpse of the man, B&C asked some of Jennings’ colleagues for their recollections. Some were still too upset to speak, but others gladly offered stories about a journalist of exacting standards and generous heart.—Mark Lasswell
David Westin, ABC News president
As it happened, Jennings fell ill this spring just as his contract was running out. Without hesitation, Westin says, the ailing anchor was offered a new deal. “One of the things from the beginning that we wanted very badly to do was to convey to Peter our hope and expectation that he would return—because he was hoping and expecting to return—and our absolute commitment to him. We didn’t want him to worry about that.” As a policy, ABC News doesn’t discuss employees’ contracts, and in the past, neither had Jennings. But word of the deal soon spread—from Jennings himself, who told others how deeply he appreciated the gesture. “It was shocking to me because it was very much out of character for Peter. He was very private about such things,” Westin says. “But I was touched that it meant that much to him. And pleased. But it was simply the right thing to do. I give the company credit. It goes right to [Disney President] Bob Iger at the top and [Disney-ABC Television Group President] Anne Sweeney. In corporate America, the right thing doesn’t always get done, sadly, but in this case, I’m confident it was done.”
John Cochran, ABC News chief Washington correspondent
Cochran first met Jennings at a Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in 1967, when Cochran was just about to graduate from college and Jennings was serving his first stint as ABC’s news anchor. “And he wasn’t much older than me,” marvels Cochran. “He had no reason to be nice to me, and he couldn’t have been nicer.” The two crossed paths 11 years later when Cochran, then working for NBC, was posted to London, where Jennings was running the foreign desk for ABC.
“Peter was single at the time, and I needed a place to stay,” Cochran recalls. “Mutual friends were going to be away from London for a year and suggested that we share their house, so we did. The first time I was sent off on a story, NBC called and said to head for Cairo. Peter asked whether I had any good news contacts there. I said 'Peter, I’ve never been to Cairo.’ And he wrote down a bunch of telephone numbers, including the private number of the Egyptian foreign minister and the prime minister. I said, 'Peter, this is extremely kind of you, but I’m the competition.’ Peter said, 'Oh, it doesn’t matter. You’ll ask him the wrong questions anyway.’”
Cochran, laughing at the memory, says, “He was just incredibly generous. He epitomized the 'gentleman correspondent.’”
Mark Halperin, ABC News political director
“A challenge Peter faced when we’d go out to report on candidates was that, more often than not, Peter was more famous than the candidates we were covering,” says Halperin, who started out at World News Tonight as a researcher in 1988 and subsequently worked closely with Jennings on ABC’s election coverage. “I was always impressed how deftly he was able to deflect people away from him and toward the candidates.”
During last year’s presidential campaign, ABC News outfitted buses as roving production facilities—much to Jennings’ delight. “Not everyone loved the buses, but Peter did,” Halperin says. “It was not the plush studio conditions most anchors are used to and demand. We worked in more-Spartan conditions, with close quarters and not as much personnel, but enough to get the job done. As serious a journalist as he was—insisting that programs be called 'programs’ or 'broadcasts’ and not 'shows’—he also recognized there was a carnival aspect to them that allowed us to turn our coverage into an event and get more people interested. He knew, if you’re not bringing people in to see it, you’re wasting your time.”
Martha Raddatz, ABC News senior national security correspondent
Accompanying Jennings on his last overseas trip, to Iraq, in January, Raddatz was amazed to find that “this man who had covered Vietnam and every conflict in between” could still be so excited about entering a war zone. “He goes into Iraq, he goes out on a Blackhawk helicopter, and everything charges him up. Everything is something to learn and to explore. When he went up to Mosul before the elections, he was with Brigadier General Carter Hamm. They ended up on a rooftop, and there was gunfire. Peter and his crew had to duck down, and it was all very dramatic. And Peter comes back and says, 'We got shot at today, Martha.’ And I said, 'Yeah, I know, you should have had your helmet on, Peter.’ Then he says, 'Well I actually thought I was rather cool, but, you know, Brigadier General Hamm seemed very nervous.’ And I said, 'Are you kidding? Of course he was nervous. He probably kept thinking, 'Oh my God, I’m going to get Peter Jennings killed, and that’s going to be my legacy.’”
Michael Clemente, ABC News Now executive producer
“I think we were fortunate in that a great many of the stories of Peter’s first 10-15 years were international,” says Clemente, who had two stints as senior producer of World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, 1983-87 and 2000-02. Jennings “had a leg up” on the competition, Clemente says, because of his long overseas reporting experience. “When TWA Flight 847 was hijacked to Beirut, he got out his handwritten phone book and, while he was on the air, was calling places where the Hezbollah leaders were.”
Clemente says that, during his first stint on World News Tonight, both he and Jennings were fathers of two children. Clemente says he sensed that Jennings “thought about having more children,” but that didn’t come to pass, which might help explain why he was especially enthusiastic as godfather for Clemente’s third child, Noel. “We were traveling so much on the road at the time that I think a lot of the fathering we were doing was on the phone. And I think he felt, frankly, equally guilty about not being home and chasing stories around the world. He was my best friend at the time, and I think he considered it a privilege to be able to help stay in touch with Noel and help her keep in touch with me. It was sort of like joint fathering from absent fathers.”
John Berman, ABC News correspondent
“For a couple of years, I was Peter’s writer at World News Tonight. I was 25,” Berman says. “When you wrote the pages for him, he would mark them with black calligraphy pen that only he was allowed to use. Sometimes he would circle with a question mark, sometimes 'Huh?,’ other times, 'Die!’ You didn’t know if he wanted the page to die, the sentence to die, or you because what you wrote was terrible.
“As a correspondent, when I started going overseas, I really felt closer to Peter. He’d had such vast experience. When I was in Iraq, if he said, 'Nice job,’ there is nothing better than that. One night during the war, I was in Nasiriyah, the third day of the war, an ugly day. I was terrified. I called in from a muddy trench, with shots being fired, and it was live. Peter said, 'John, just tell us what you see.’ There was warmth in his voice. Maybe I was imagining it because I was scared, but it was reassuring.”
Michele Norris, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered
“Peter was very influential in creating an environment in the workplace that was accommodating to women who were juggling the chainsaws of work and motherhood,” says Norris, a World News Tonight correspondent from 1993 to 2002.
Jennings’ family-friendliness was brought home to her after she became pregnant with her second child when her first was barely 18 weeks old. Norris says she heard through the network grapevine that some higher-ups at ABC had called a meeting to discuss whether she would be able to carry her workload. Jennings and Paul Slavin, Norris’ principal editor, jumped to her defense. “They said, 'Norris has been even more productive through her first pregnancy and since she came back. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt here and expect that she can handle this. She hasn’t given us any reason to think otherwise.’ Peter could have remained silent or seconded the concern. I wondered if I would be able to handle it. But to have the man with the name on the broadcast, the franchise, say, 'Let’s not worry unless she gives us reason to worry’ meant a tremendous amount.”
Tom Yellin, president, PJ Productions
“People don’t know how nervous he got in front of people when he wasn’t on TV,” says Yellin, a longtime ABC News producer prior to going to work with Jennings’ documentary production company.
“He appeared so calm and in control but, in fact, he was one of the most outwardly emotional people. He’d get verklempt and cry at office birthday parties and things others don’t get emotional about. His professional life was guided by careful understanding of what his role was. As a professional person, he understood it was important for him to keep control, especially when things got dicey. As a regular person, he was all over the place emotionally. A passion for life is one of the things that drove him and made him empathic.”
That empathy led Jennings, before his illness, to work on a documentary about an area of special concern to many Americans: the health-care system. The documentary is close to completion, and “Peter is all over it,” says Yellin. He and the network have agreed that the project will make it to air, Yellin says. “It is an important story that Peter cared a lot about.”
Reporting by John Eggerton, Ken Kerschbaumer and Allison Romano