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ABC's Canadian newscaster brought the world's biggest stories into the homes of millions of Americans

Peter Jennings was a high-school dropout who became ABC television's definitive face of world events in a stellar 45-year career as a foreign correspondent and news anchor. A proud Canadian who only applied for dual citizenship in the United States after 9/11, he was a man of exceptional physical grace and legendary stamina.

Counting down to the turn of the millennium in December, 1999, he was on the air for 25 hours, winning a Peabody Award for ABC and an audience of 175 million for the biggest live television event ever. During the week of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September, 2001, he anchored ABC's coverage for more than 60 hours, providing an informed and calming presence.

Among his many coups, he was the first Canadian journalist to arrive in Dallas after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963; he used his Canadian passport to report from inside Cuba for ABC when the country was off-limits to Americans; and he deployed his expertise on the Middle East and the Black September guerrillas to award-winning advantage during the Munich Olympics in 1972.

He loved the camera as much as it favoured him. In the early part of his career, his crisp good looks and forthright demeanour damaged his credibility as an anchor. Later, after time and wrinkles had weathered his classic good lucks, critics quipped: "He's now as good as he used to think he was." Another said: "He's 10 times better than people have a right to expect because he's so good looking."

Offstage, he was as restless romantically as he was intellectually, saying "I do" four times. Like many veteran journalists, he was a reformed smoker. He started sneaking puffs at 11 and it soon became compulsive. He consumed three packs a day until he quit in 1980 after his first child was born. He relapsed for a few months after the terrorist attacks in 2001, but conquered his addiction for a second time. He was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in April this year.

Peter Charles Jennings was born in Toronto, the older of two children of homemaker Elizabeth Osborne and Charles Jennings, chief announcer for CBC Radio and later vice-president for regional programming. Describing his father as one of the pioneers of radio news, Mr. Jennings compared him with the legendary Edward R. Murrow. As a young boy, Mr. Jennings remembers his father challenging him to "describe the sky" and, after he complied, telling him to "go out and slice it into pieces and describe each piece as different from the next." He also credited his father and the CBC for teaching him to respect the audience and the ethic that "everybody in the country has a right to hear themselves represented somehow on the national broadcasting system."

Mr. Jennings made his own debut behind the microphone at the age of 9 when he began hosting Peter's People in 1947, a weekly half-hour CBC radio show of music and news for children. His father, who had been in the Middle East on CBC business when the program first aired, was outraged to learn his son was broadcasting for his own employer because he "couldn't stand nepotism," according to an interview Mr. Jennings gave the U.S. edition of Reader's Digest in 2002.

At 11, he began boarding at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., where he excelled at cricket, hockey and football. Six years later, he shifted to Lisgar Collegiate in Ottawa (where his father had been transferred to CBC headquarters in the early 1950s). School couldn't compete with sports and the real world and he dropped out before graduation, much to his parents' chagrin. "He was totally bored sitting in a classroom and learning things," said Phyllis Bruce, an executive editor at HarperCollins publishers and a family friend since 1960. "He had a terrific education by travelling and living around the world, but formal education never suited him temperamentally."

Although he ran away from school to be a broadcaster, he ended up in the archetypical Canadian job -- a bank teller. He fantasized that the Royal Bank of Canada would transfer him to the bank's branch in Havana. Instead, they sent him to Prescott, a small town on the St. Lawrence, and then to Brockville, where he was hired by radio station CFJR for his first real job in radio.

He soon gravitated to the CBC, where he hosted Let's Face It, a public-affairs show, and Time Out, an afternoon talk show. In 1962, he moved back to Ottawa for a job with CJOH-TV, where he appeared as special-events commentator and host of Vue, a daily late-night interview program that he also co-produced.

CTV lured him away to anchor the first national news broadcast out of Ottawa on the private network in 1962. Having an Adonis-like newscaster in that era of avuncular anchors moulded after Walter Cronkite was quite a departure. Naturally graceful, Mr. Jennings had an affinity for the camera -- and it for him. "It gave him an authority and a confidence that came across when he was covering the news that was probably inherited," remembered Ms. Bruce, "but he certainly had the capacity to have the camera love him and he loved it back."

He was reporting on the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City for CTV when Elmer W. Lower, then president of ABC News, offered him a job as a correspondent for the network.

He left his higher-paying anchor job at CTV and moved to New York in September, 1964, to go back to reporting. "I decided, ironically enough, that I was tired of being an anchorperson," he told Jeffrey Simpson for his book Star-Spangled Canadians. "I was too young and too ill-equipped, and America I perceived as this great new canvas on which to paint, to use the cliché. I was also aware that neither CTV or CBC could afford to send me anywhere."

He'd been on the job for only a few months when ABC executives plunked the 26-year-old correspondent behind a desk and made him anchor of the network's 15-minute nightly newscast. They were hoping he might entice younger viewers away from CBS's Walter Cronkite or the NBC duo of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

Mr. Jennings took the anchorman reins from Ron Cochran -- by coincidence, also a Canadian -- on Feb. 1, 1965. Critics were scathing, calling him a "glamorcaster" and complaining that he was too young and inexperienced. He once jokingly asked the ABC makeup artist to draw bags under his eyes so he would look his age. Viewers didn't like his Canadian accent and the way he said "leftenant" instead of "lieutenant." When he mispronounced Appomattox, an iconic Civil War battle, and misidentified The Marine Hymn as Anchors Away at Lyndon Johnson's presidential inauguration, scathing critics sniffed blood.

He lasted three years in the anchor seat, before being sent back to the field as a roving correspondent -- a decision he never regretted for it was the making of him as a news broadcaster. Beginning in January, 1968, he spent most of the next 10 years abroad, working first in the Middle East, where he became an expert on the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. His program Palestine: New State of Mind, for the ABC News half-hour documentary series Now, was considered by many observers to be the most thoughtful analysis of its day of the confused political situation in that area.

As head of the newly established ABC News Middle East bureau in Beirut in the early 1970s, Mr. Jennings conducted the first interview with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to be televised in the United States. When ABC sent him to Munich for the non-sports coverage of the 1972 Olympics, his hard-won expertise and his dogged reporting came into play after the Black September group seized the Israeli compound.

Not only could he provide analysis of the group's background and goals, but he also hid himself and a camera crew close enough to the compound that they were able to get clear pictures of the guerrillas, their faces masked by stockings and floppy hats, dashing in and out. "It was among the most gripping episodes ever shown on live television," wrote Barbara Matusow in her 1983 book, The Evening Stars: The Making of the Network News Anchor. Undoubtedly, he helped ABC win an Emmy for outstanding achievement in the coverage of special events.

Two years later, he won a George Foster Peabody Award for his dual roles as chief correspondent and co-producer of Sadat: Action Biography, a candid profile of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat that aired on Dec. 19, 1974. Among Mr. Jennings's other scoops were his inside reports from Cuba and his behind-the-lines coverage of the civil war in Bangladesh in 1971, for which he received a National Headliner Award.

He went back to the United States at the end of 1974 for an unsuccessful stint as Washington correspondent and newsreader for A.M. America, ABC's first attempt to cash in on the lucrative early-morning news market. The two-hour show, which combined news, interviews and features, made its debut on Jan. 6, 1975, but it failed to entice viewers away from the entrenched NBC News program Today and, on Oct. 31, 1975, it folded.

The following month, Mr. Jennings was reassigned overseas with the title of chief foreign correspondent. He was promoted to foreign news anchorman of ABC's nightly evening newscast, retitled World News Tonight, in July, 1978. By then a seasoned and confident journalist, he perfectly complemented his co-anchors -- Frank Reynolds, reporting from Washington, and Max Robinson, who was based in Chicago -- in the innovative triple-anchor format that Roone Arledge, the president of ABC News, had invented in an attempt to make the network's news division more competitive with CBS and NBC.

Based in London, Mr. Jennings not only anchored the foreign news segment of the broadcast but also served as ABC's chief foreign correspondent.

In this capacity, Mr. Jennings lobbied hard for complicated international stories he thought deserved exposure in the nightly news lineup and, in the eyes of the network brass, greatly enhanced the quality of the network's global coverage. Because he was stationed overseas, he often arrived at events, such as the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, long before his American counterparts. Moreover, his constant exposure to the European perspective insulated him from the narrow and often distorted viewpoint that is an inevitable result of so-called "pack journalism," in which reporters rely largely on the same sources for their information.

As Ms. Matusow pointed out, Mr. Jennings's analysis of Mr. Sadat's assassination and its political consequences was "far more penetrating" than those offered by commentators less familiar with the Middle East. He was one of the few reporters to detect in the usually demonstrative Egyptians' subdued reaction to Mr. Sadat's death a sign of the former president's estrangement from his fellow countrymen.

His long-standing interest in Middle Eastern affairs prompted him to interview Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then a relatively obscure Iranian cleric living in exile in France, several months before he returned to his homeland in triumph after the overthrow of the shah of Iran. The correspondent reported on those world-shaking events from the scene early in 1979 and returned to Tehran the following November, when militant supporters of the ayatollah seized control of the U.S. embassy there, taking some 60 hostages.

Mr. Jennings was also on hand for the hostages' release in Frankfurt, West Germany, on Jan. 20, 1981, filing 11 special reports in addition to performing his usual anchor chores. During his tenure as the foreign-desk anchorman for World News Tonight, Mr. Jennings also personally covered, among other events, the Falkland Islands war between Britain and Argentina and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, both in 1982, and Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Poland, in June, 1983. His penchant for reporting the most important international stories himself annoyed some ABC field correspondents, who resented the repeated invasions of their turf by what they called "Jennings's Flying Circus."

Still, nobody could deny that he was a tireless and relentless reporter. "I had enormous respect for him, especially for the way he covered the Middle East," said Canadian journalist Michael Maclear, himself no slouch as a foreign correspondent, especially during the Vietnam war. "I remember him talking about the competitiveness of the news and how only about one out of four reports you prepared got used in the newscast because of the pressure of the day's events. But he said each one has to be approached and worked on as if it will be the one that is going to be used. I think that is the approach that we all took but I admired him because he had a very established position with a major network and he still went at it as if it were his first day on the job."

Mr. Jennings began a new phase in his career in September, 1983, when he succeeded Frank Reynolds as anchor of a revamped nightly newscast and also became senior editor for the program. He was now competing head-on with CBS's Dan Rather and NBC's Tom Brokaw.

"For sheer professionalism, he was way out in front," said Mr. Maclear. "His sense of timing -- you can't even begin to compare him with Brokaw and Rather because he is so much better." His "sheer on-camera ability," as well as his "100-per-cent credentials as a foreign correspondent" are what guaranteed his longevity as an anchor, according to Mr. Maclear. "If he hadn't had those qualities, and being a Canadian, he might not have lasted as long."

Mr. Jennings outlasted his rivals Tom Brokaw (who retired in December, 2004) and Dan Rather (who stepped down in March this year). He wrote two books with Todd Brewster. The Century, a bestseller that provided a breezily informative, if egocentrically American, perspective on key events, accompanied a multipart documentary series that was hosted by Mr. Jennings. The duo also produced a much more personal book about values, called In Search of America, which also had a television series.

Mr. Jennings appeared frail in the late spring of this year. He was said to be suffering from a cold and then an upper respiratory ailment when he didn't travel to Rome to anchor ABC's coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II early in April. Then, on April 5, ABC News announced that Mr. Jennings had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Network president David Westin promised Mr. Jennings would continue to anchor World News Tonight between chemotherapy treatments "to the extent he can do so comfortably." Looking weak and speaking in a raspy voice, Mr. Jennings himself appeared at the end of the newscast that night to break the news to viewers.

Peter Charles Jennings was born in Toronto on July 29, 1938. He died of lung cancer on Aug. 7. He was 67. He is survived by his wife, Kayce Freed, his children Elizabeth and Christopher, his sister Sarah and three former wives.

Highlights of a remarkable career

1962: Joins CTV to anchor its national news broadcast out of Ottawa.

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.

1975: News anchor for A.M. America, predecessor to Good Morning America.

1975-1978: Chief foreign correspondent for ABC News.

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.


The Century (with Todd Brewster), published in 1998.

In Search of America, a companion book for the 1999 ABC News series The Century.


Fourteen national Emmys; two George Foster Peabody Awards; several Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards; several Overseas Press Club Awards.

Source: ABC News/AP

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