The Passage of Time

The passing of Peter Jennings. Being the news addict that I am (and living without cable), I grew up watching Peter Jennings. He was, as they say, suave and sophisticated – I mean, come on – it was “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.” Not just Nightly News, but World News (no offense to Tom Brokaw, but I seriously watched more Jennings than Brokaw). As I grew older, I realized he wasn’t infallible (he could be a little pedantic, and that Canadian accent made you wonder – is it alien or charming?) – the NY Times’ Jacques Steinberg captured it right:

As an anchor, Mr. Jennings presented himself as a worldly alternative to Mr. Brokaw’s plain-spoken Midwestern manner and Mr. Rather’s folksy, if at times offbeat, Southern charm. He neither spoke like many of his viewers (“about” came out of his mouth as A-BOOT, a remnant of his Canadian roots) nor looked like them, with a matinee-idol face and crisply tailored wardrobe that were frequently likened in print to those of James Bond.

Though his bearing could be stiff on the air (and his syntax sometimes criticized as being so simplistic as to border on patronizing), Mr. Jennings was immensely popular with his audience.

During a trip last fall through Kansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio in the weeks before the presidential election, he traveled at times aboard a coach customized by the news division to trumpet its campaign coverage and frequently received a rock star’s welcome when he decamped.

For example, in the parking lot of a deli just outside of Pittsburgh, where he had come to interview a long-shot candidate for Congress whose threadbare headquarters was upstairs, Mr. Jennings found himself on the receiving end of several hugs from loyal viewers.

“He’s so handsome,” one of those viewers, Vilma Berryman, 66, the deli owner, observed immediately after meeting him. “He’s taller than I thought. He speaks so softly.”

“I feel like I know him,” she added. “He’s just so easy.”

Like all of the Big 3, Mr. Jennings was not without his detractors. Some critics contended he was too soft on the air when describing the Palestinian cause or the regime of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro – charges he disputed. Similarly, a July 2004 article in the National Review portrayed him as a thinly veiled opponent of the American war in Iraq.

The article quoted Mr. Jennings as saying: “That is simply not the way I think of this role. This role is designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public.”

Mr. Jennings was conscious of having been imbued, during his Canadian boyhood, with a skepticism about American behavior; at least partly as a result, he often delighted in presenting the opinions of those in the minority, whatever the situation.

And yet he simultaneously carried on an elaborate love affair with America, one that reached its apex in the summer of 2003, when he announced that he had become an American citizen, scoring, he said proudly, 100 percent on his citizenship test.

In a toast around that time that he gave at the new National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he described his adopted home as “this brash and noble container of dreams, this muse to artists and inventors and entrepreneurs, this beacon of optimism, this dynamo of energy, this trumpet blare of liberty.”

Mr. Jennings’s personal life was at times grist for the gossip pages, including his three divorces. His third wife, the author Kati Marton, whom he married in 1979 and divorced in 1993, is the mother of his two children, who survive him. They are a daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Christopher, both of New York City. He is also survived by his fourth wife, Kayce Freed, a former ABC television producer whom he married in December 1997, and a sister, Sarah Jennings of Ottawa, Canada. Having prided himself on rarely taking a sick day in nearly 40 years – and being dismissive, at times, of those well-paid colleagues who did – Mr. Jennings had missed the broadcast and the newsroom terribly in recent months.

When he got to be in the gossip pages and faced criticism, I realized that Jennings was human. In an era where the Anchorman isn’t what it used to be, maybe that’s okay. But, in times of trouble, there was Jennings being reassuring while realistic. It didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eyes and entirely credible. NY Times’ Alessandra Stanley notes:

He was not warm or cozily familiar. He was cool and even a little supercilious. If you invited Peter Jennings into your living room, he would be likely to raise an eyebrow at the stains on the coffee table. He was not America’s best friend or kindly uncle. But in an era of chatty newscasters, jousting analysts and hyperactive commentators, he was a rare voice of civility. [….]

What Mr. Jennings had that will be harder to replace was a worldliness that was rooted in his personality and also in his rich background of experience in the field.

Mr. Jennings, who died on Sunday, worked hard his entire life to overcome a flighty beginning: he never attended college, and got his start on Canadian television with the help of his father, a senior executive at the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Mr. Jennings became famous as the host of a dance show for teenagers and was only 26 when ABC News recruited him to be an anchor, more on the basis of his good looks and smooth delivery than anything else. He made up for it later, working as a correspondent in Vietnam, Beirut and Europe. His colleagues teased him about his dashing trench coats, but nobody looked better in Burberry or in black tie. [….]

Brian Williams on NBC is as natty, self-possessed and buttoned-down as Mr. Brokaw and Mr. Jennings combined. Charles Gibson, who stepped in most often to replace Mr. Jennings when he began cancer treatment, proved a comfortingly familiar, competent face. For now at least, Bob Schieffer at CBS has introduced a no-nonsense note of the elder statesman after the nightly roller-coaster ride that was Dan Rather.

All of them remain in the classic anchor mold, but not one of them has the hauteur and dignity that Mr. Jennings brought to the news. Network newscasts have lost much of their audience and authority, but throughout all the setbacks, erosions and even his own fatal illness, he never lost his uncommon touch.

Ironically, another network’s commentator did it nicely – MSNBC’s commentator Michael Ventre says:

The last trustworthy American was born a Canadian.

Peter Jennings became an American citizen in 2003. But before that, he was an honorary American, one of the small handful of people we went to for the truth. And he came through. He never lied to us. He always gave it to us straight. [….]

Jennings made fewer headlines than his broadcast brethren. He did in network news what Spencer Tracy once advised a fellow actor to do: “Find your mark, look into the camera and tell the truth.”

Now media consultants will panic to replace him, like they’ve done in the aftermath of the Rather exit. They’ll look for new ways to present the news.[….]

Spin will be the order of the day. Never mind that folks have less faith in the news media now than ever. The idea is to jazz up the broadcast while softening the edges, not break stories. Network suits are able to do this now because the last trustworthy man in America is no longer with us.

He was our Cronkite, even if people didn’t realize it, or took him for granted. He will be missed, and network news will never be the same.

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