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A gentle man ... a gentleman 

Reflections on Peter Jennings' contribution to broadcast news

One Christmas Eve maybe a decade ago, a man finished his work, looked around at those closest to him, and said, "I'm going to the downtown homeless shelter to help serve dinner. Anyone want to come along?"

The small group immediately agreed, all except those who had unbreakable family commitments.

The man was Peter Jennings, and his friends were those who helped put "World News Tonight" together. The story was told to me by his personal assistant, a woman close to his own age who had run Peter's professional life since they met at a dinner party in London more than a decade earlier, and she told it to me to illustrate her view of her boss.

It was a side of Jennings the viewer didn't see, yet he managed to insert that basic humility in his newscasts, and even more in his reportorial specials; he never pontificated or proselytized. He was always aware of his responsibilities.

Peter's humility was complemented by a sly, Canadian-British sense of humor ... a twinkle, sometimes a subtle leg-pull he would occasionally insert in his script, but always, always carefully, so no one would take offense, because Peter was very, very human and a very vulnerable guy, even if that sounds strange for a man of his capacities and visibility. By the time you read this, Peter Jennings will have been lauded and eulogized by the mighty, by his colleagues and his competitors, and his measure as a consummate electronic journalist will have been taken. He will not have been found wanting. To the contrary, even his competitors liked him personally and, although each had his own style, they all watched Jennings and, I suspect, they, as others, marveled at the humanity and the grace of the man who even called Dan Rather a friend.

They, as the rest of us, also marveled at the capability of the brash young man from Ontario with almost no formal high education who could absorb, analyze, and phrase history, and morph it into The Big Picture, at times without script or prompter. Witness his marathon at the change of the millennium, when he shepherded 2000 in from a remote Pacific island, around the globe 24 hours later to Hawaii.

Or, of course, when he helped keep us from falling apart during the ghastly hours of and after 9/11. Then he broadcast, with barely a break, for 12 straight tortured, strained, emotion-ridden hours, took a break, then returned for a total of something over 60 hours, live, in a few days. He was, even in fatigue, conscious that his role was not just to present the news, but, as the best of those before him at times of national crisis, to help keep us, hunkered and centered out here on the other side of the screen, from unraveling under the emotion and the strain.

There were, of course, the other sides to Peter: his four marriages, which, to a peripatetic journalist, are completely understandable. There aren't many women who will put up, over a period of time, with the constant travel that the role of foreign correspondent demands. Or with the long, often nocturnal hours, and indeed the risks the job demands ... especially if there are children who need paternal attention.

(And one of his wives, the mother of his now-grown children, is the daughter of the gallant AP staffer Andre Marton, who kept the Associated Press Bureau in Budapest open till the last moment, pleading for help for the young Hungarians who were fighting Soviet tanks with bare fists. Katie, a writer in her own right, is now the wife of Richard Holbrook, who is effectively the Democrats' shadow secretary of state.)

And then there were the suits. No one, at least to my knowledge, could wear a suit with such grace (I was going to write "panache," but that's not a Jennings word), and with so few disconcerting, interruptive folds. I suspect that every once in a while Peter would feel he really had to interview Tony Blair again or maybe the Queen, and flip across the Atlantic to do some reporting, of course, but mainly for a couple of sessions with his Savile Row tailor.

This in another man might be a telltale of ego, but if Peter's ego strained at him, and yearned to display itself, he unleashed it only in the privacy of his own four walls. In public, it was well restrained.

In return for the annual $10 million, give or take a few dollars, Peter did what the Disney ownership of ABC asked of him ... mostly. He had to yield on budgetary matters, which meant that ABC lost a lot of good correspondents when the Mousemen took over. But he balked at many orders from on high - most specifically, what constituted news. The Disneyites were in awe of him and his ratings power, and the friendly daily news brief he sent out to those on his e-mail list. He had been around corporate long enough to know the strength of his hand, and he used it and thus kept the essence of the "WNT" news, not fan mag or comic strip.

Then, earlier this year, with Peter's formidable presence and bargaining power diminished, if not gone, Burbank's view of the news became increasingly evident: when Peter retired from the studio in April, "World News Tonight" became softer, more consumer-oriented, far less of a program that broadcast what was really happening in the world.

After Peter's departure for chemotherapy, and the realization that he probably never would return, Charlie Gibson and others, behind the screen, used their clout to hold the line as much as they could. A reminder was that the evening news anchor always, invariably, signed off, "For Peter Jennings and ... " They weren't going to let ABC toss Peter into the discard. Not right away.

I have to tell a personal story: I worked for ABC as a stringer in the Eastern Mediterranean from 1968-'71. Somewhere in that period, the network offered me a staff job if I would move from Athens to Beirut. I refused, for several highly personal reasons involving small children and beaches. I was let go shortly thereafter, for cause. My successor was Peter Jennings, and Peter's Middle East coverage probably did as much as anything to make him preeminent in his field.

There's a final anecdote. A local news anchor made an excellent documentary some years back, which involved a lot of enterprise and some extensive travel. It was good enough for network, but ABC undercut the anchor's local production by sending a staffer to the main location of the documentary and shooting its own version ... preferable to allowing an upstart to air nationally. Later that year, the anchor encountered Peter Jennings in a corridor at a network confabulation. Peter looked at the local man with a grin, "Corporate's pretty arrogant, aren't they?" and sauntered on.

The local man was astounded that Jennings would even have known about the power play.

Peter will be missed, not only for the warm friendliness of his smile and his skill in handling the news, but because, with his departure, network news will be far poorer and far more vulnerable to the carping of the entertainment industry's bean counters.

Peter Jennings was the last of his generation's greats. He was also the last who had actually gone out there and done the job in the muck and the mire that is the life of the foreign-based correspondent. Working abroad is risky to your career, because it means you're out of the power center, not around to schmooze the higher-ups, and your stuff may not be used as regularly. But Peter took the risk, and he was just too damn good to ignore, so he came back to triumphs he would have been the last to admit.

He will be missed. This nation, which likes to think, even to be mentally provoked, without admitting it, is the poorer.

Former correspondent Bayard Stockton lives in Santa Barbara. He can be reached at [email protected].

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