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Bidding Peter Jennings Farewell


Of the three network anchors who gave Americans the news for decades, the last one at the anchor desk was Peter Jennings. The ABC News anchor died last night at his New York City apartment at the age of 67. His wife and two grown children were nearby. NPR's David Folkenflik reports on a newsman whose disastrous start led to a career that lasted for decades.


Jennings was rich fodder for media critics and gossip columnists and for two decades he was a cosmopolitan conduit to the day's news for millions of Americans. In April, Jennings told viewers of "World News Tonight" of his own difficult story.

(Soundbite of "World News Tonight")

Mr. PETER JENNINGS (ABC News): As some of you now know, I have learned in the last couple of days that I have lung cancer.

FOLKENFLIK: Longtime rivals Tom Brokaw of NBC and Dan Rather of CBS have also stepped down in the last year. Jennings always seemed to be the most cultured of the three, but he had dropped out of high school in his native Canada. He pursued a career in broadcasting, his father's trade. At the age of 24, Jennings became an anchor for a major Canadian channel and was lured to New York. By 26, Jennings was anchoring ABC's "Evening News." It didn't go well.

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" interview, 1998)

Mr. JENNINGS: I did it for three years. For the first years, I was too stupid to feel awkward about it.

FOLKENFLIK: As Jennings told Terry Gross on WHYY's "Fresh Air" in 1998, he asked to become a correspondent for more seasoning. He said he later figured he otherwise would have been fired.

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" interview, 1998)

Mr. JENNINGS: And off I went, and I never thought I'd come back. I never thought I would anchor again, because I was so happy for the intervening 20 years.

FOLKENFLIK: Jennings went to Beirut in 1968, where he opened the first American television bureau in the Arab world. He later reported from the Rome and London bureaus. In 1972, Jennings joined ABC's Jim McKay to anchor the Munich Olympics. It became coverage of terrorism instead of sports.

(Soundbite from ABC broadcast, 1972)

Mr. JIM McKAY (ABC Sports): Peter Jennings is inside the village. Let's go to Peter now.

Mr. JENNINGS: Jim, I am almost directly over the Israeli building. Considerable speculation as to who the commandos are...

FOLKENFLIK: Jennings returned to the anchor's desk in the late 1970s, where he shared duties. He took over on his own in 1983 and left his mark on ABC News.

Mr. JEFF GREENFIELD (CNN Senior Analyst): He really did think that news about what was going on in the world was really important but was undercovered even then by most of the networks. He greeted stuff like the O.J. story with a great deal of unhappiness.

FOLKENFLIK: CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield worked at ABC News for 14 years.

Mr. GREENFIELD: For me, the embodiment of that was after the shelling of the Sarajevo market by the Serbs in--I think that was '95--he almost single-handedly kept that story in front of the American news-viewing public.

FOLKENFLIK: Peers at ABC News say Jennings was almost unflappable in the wake of the September 2001 attacks. He anchored ABC's continuous news coverage, seemingly without break, for nearly four days.

(Soundbite of ABC broadcast, 2001)

Mr. JENNINGS: It is a tragedy that has revealed itself before the eyes of millions of people in the country watching on television.

FOLKENFLIK: ABC News president David Westin says he tried to convince Jennings to go home to sleep for a few hours, but failed.

Mr. DAVID WESTIN (President, ABC News): He brought to that all of his expertise, but even more than that, his calm and steady hand and his cautiousness in reporting and his ability to take disparate reports from all around the country and even around the world, and weave them together.

FOLKENFLIK: On "Fresh Air," Jennings said he always sought to give viewers context.

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" interview, 1998)

Mr. JENNINGS: I find writing the evening news sometimes very challenging because I realize that what we're trying to give folks in the evening is black and white, when so often I want to give them gray.

FOLKENFLIK: ABC's Charles Gibson announced Jennings' death on the air last night at about 11:30. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.