Peter Jennings

Jennings remembered as 'the best of the breed'

CTV.ca News Staff

"He was the best of the breed. I don't think there was anybody as good as Peter Jennings," CTV News anchor Lloyd Robertson says of his former colleague, who died of lung cancer Sunday at the age of 67.

For more than 20 years, Jennings was the face of ABC News, anchoring World News Tonight. His elegant delivery and reassuring presence brought the world to Americans during turbulent times.

He will be remembered as a journalist who covered stories from around the world, whether it was the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Genetics may have had something to do with Jennings' passion for journalism. His father, Charles Jennings, was the first nightly anchor in Canadian television journalism and later headed the CBC. Peter always kept a picture of his dad prominently displayed in his office at ABC News.

By the time he was nine years old, Jennings hosted his own Saturday morning radio program for kids called "Peter's People", which aired on CBC Radio in Ottawa.

Jennings never finished high school or college -- something fellow news anchor Ted Koppel said his friend always regretted.

"I have never spent a day in my adult life where I didn't learn something,'' Jennings told the Saturday Evening Post. "And if there is a born-again quality to me, that's it.''

Instead of getting a formal education, Jennings dove into journalism, becoming a reporter at the age of 21 for CFJR radio station in Brockville, Ont.

Many of his stories were aired on CBC Radio and it wasn't long before he began working at CJOH-TV in Ottawa.

"Peter always was a natural to television," Robertson says.

It was there that he was noticed by the fledgling CTV network.

"He said to me, 'I've got this offer to go and do the news at CTV, a private network, and I don't know what my old man is going to think,'" Robertson recalls.

"Charles Jennings, of course, was the vice president of CBC. He had been on the air there doing news for years and years. Charles said to Peter, 'Go and do it. It's a great break.'"

An even bigger break came in 1964 as Jennings covered the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. ABC News was ranked third in the ratings and was looking for a way to attract younger viewers. The network's news president saw Jennings and offered him a job.

Although Jennings would spend the rest of his life in the U.S., he held on to his Canadian citizenship, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen only two years ago while maintaining dual citizenship.

"Peter maintained a cottage in the Gatineau hills," says his former colleague at CJOH anchor, Max Keeping. "He was very fond of his Canadian roots, he never fought them."

At ABC, Jennings quickly established himself as a charismatic and photogenic reporter. In 1956, at the age of 26, he was promoted to anchor for "Peter Jennings with the News."

His position lasted only three years. He later told author Barbara Matusow that he was placed in an extremely difficult situation, far above his head.

"It was a little ridiculous when you think about it. A 26-year-old trying to compete with Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. I was simply unqualified," he said.

The experience might have been humbling, but Jennings began to hone his skills as a journalist and gained a reputation for going straight to the scene of a story.

He was present at many of the pivotal moments of the 1960s, such as the building of the Berlin Wall, or the civil rights movement in the American south, including the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

But Jennings truly established himself as a foreign correspondent. He reported from Vietnam and Cambodia's "killing fields", and travelled to South Africa to report on Apartheid.

He soon became an expert on the Middle East. In 1968, Jennings started the first television news bureau in the Arab world, in Beirut, Lebanon. He was the bureau chief there for seven years.

His first major story as a foreign correspondent was in 1972, when he covered the hostage-taking of Israeli athletes by Arab terrorists during the Summer Olympics in Munich. He was as close to the story as possible, hiding with his crew in the athletes' quarters.

"It think at that point, [ABC president] Roone Arledge said 'This kid really has something,'" Robertson told Canada AM.

A decade after leaving as anchor for ABC News for the first time, Jennings was ABC's chief foreign correspondent. He was a greatly respected reporter who had covered stories from some of the most violent regions of the world. In 1978, ABC turned its news show into World News Tonight, and made Jennings one of its three anchors.

The multiple-anchor format was scrapped in 1983 and Jennings took the desk by himself. Though years before he had been criticized for being too young and too inexperienced, he now commanded a great sense authority. His years of reporting the world's events enabled him to take complex stories and find their essence.

World News Tonight focused on international stories, while the other networks relied more on domestic reports. Americans responded favourably to the style, and after 1986, World News Tonight won top ratings for a decade.

Even as anchor, Jennings continued to report from around the world. Over the last 30 years, he traveled to eastern Europe where he covered the Cold War and the loosening control of communism. As an ABC biography states, he worked "in every European nation that once was behind the Iron Curtain."

He never neglected America, either, and reported field stories in all 50 states.

His most popular newscast came during ABC's millennium special, ABC 2000, on December 31, 1999. Jennings anchored the show for a staggering 25 consecutive hours. It drew 175 million viewers.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Jennings put his knowledge of foreign affairs and his ability to concentrate on the important elements of the story, to report on the events. He anchored for over 60 hours that week, and earned ABC News a Peabody Award.

It was when Jennings missed a chance to report from Asia after the tsunami crisis that it became obvious his health was failing. Four months ago, he made the announcement that he had lung cancer.

"I will continue to do the broadcast," Jennings re-assured millions of viewers. "On good days, my voice will not always be like this."

His voice, a gateway to the world's events for many, was never heard on ABC News again.

Highlights from Jennings' television news career:

1962 - Co-anchor for CTV News.
1964 - Joins ABC News.
1965-1968 - Anchor of "ABC Evening News" while still in his 20s.
1968-1974 - Established first American television news bureau in the Arab world as ABC bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon.
1975-1976 - News anchor for "A.M. America," predecessor to "Good Morning America."
1977 - Chief Foreign Correspondent.
1978-1983 - Chief Foreign Correspondent for ABC News and foreign desk anchor for "World News Tonight."
1983-2005 - Anchor and senior editor of ABC's "World News Tonight."

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