Peter Jennings never did get to say farewell to his longstanding audience at the time of his choosing, a right he had earned after 22 years as the anchor for ABC’s “World News Tonight,” 11 of those years as the ratings leader.
Instead, as he closed his April 5 broadcast, Jennings, in a husky voice that made his viewers want to clear their own throats, disclosed that he was leaving the broadcast to be treated for lung cancer, but hoped to return. He never did, and he died Sunday at 67.
Even though he was a Canadian, and remained one until 2003, Jennings was what is thought of as a typical American success story _ a high-school dropout who through tenacity and self-improvement drove himself to the top of a strenuously competitive profession.
He belied the canard that the fundamental prerequisites for success in TV news are to be glib and good-looking. Those two qualities perhaps got his foot in the door at ABC in 1964, when he came south to cover the Democratic convention, but he had already served his apprenticeship in Canadian television and himself was the son of an anchor.
The struggling ABC News made him its anchor a year later, but the 26-year-old was up against Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the veteran newsmen and broadcasters who made the anchor into an American icon. Jennings later freely conceded that he was too young and inexperienced, and the experiment ended after three years.
He could have slunk back to Canada, but instead remade himself as a foreign correspondent with special expertise in Europe and the Mideast. He returned, considerably more urbane and knowledgeable, as ABC’s sole anchor in 1983.
That same year, Tom Brokaw became sole anchor at NBC. The troika of Jennings, Brokaw and Dan Rather, CBS anchor since 1981, became a nightly ritual _ and the principal source of news for millions of Americans. Most journalists, even the best ones, will die in semi-obscurity, but Jennings’ death had the impact it did because viewers felt they knew this regular nightly visitor.
By happenstance, all three anchors left their networks within five months of each other, and the old cliche is true _ their departures marked the end of an era. They were superstars in a way anchors are not now and may never be again.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)