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Extended Interview: Peter Jennings

February 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Where do you think the traditional audience for the evening news has gone?

PETER JENNINGS: Everywhere, absolutely everywhere. It’s gone to the cable channels which deliver news. It’s gone to all of the 75 or 275 channels that you can get on an average home set today. And some of it has gone to the Internet. And some of it, I think, has gone to changing work habits, where people stay in their offices.
I sometimes remind people that the second largest reason why people don’t watch the evening news is because there’s no access to a television set where they are, namely in their car, or their bus, or on the train, or in their office. So the answer in short is, they’ve gone everywhere.

TERENCE SMITH: That is a point. Who’s home at 6:30 or 7:00 in the evening?

PETER JENNINGS: Or 5:30 in some time zones in the country as well. I mean, I say in jest sometimes that maybe we shouldn’t call it “World News Tonight.” We might want to call it “World News This Afternoon” because in the summertime in some parts of the country the news comes on as early as 4:30 in the afternoon. I would not watch the news at 4:30 in the afternoon.

TERENCE SMITH: So how has that changed the evening news broadcast as an institution, and yours in particular, if that audience has not only shrunk but changed in age and interest?

PETER JENNINGS: Well, I don’t think it’s changed the evening news broadcast, per se. In other words, we are still, primarily, the three of us, pretty middle-of-the-road establishment newscasts that cover the major news of the day at the top of the broadcast, and then our choices are individual choices further on. But it certainly means we are no longer the institutions, as you point out, that we once were.

There are a lot of other factors which have changed what kind of news is done and the way news is done, but I don’t think it’s just the shrinking of the audience that has made the difference.

TERENCE SMITH: It used to be that the evening news was central in the process of knowing what went on that day. Is it today?

PETER JENNINGS: Of course not. It’s still a very good place to get a daily take on the news if the newscast in question does it intelligently and decides that that is its mandate. But it doesn’t make sense for an evening news broadcast on the network to have the mandate of all the news you can get in any more, because people have so many more choices. We begin to edit a daily newscast on the assumption that “Good Morning America”, for one, and the other morning programs, will have delivered some of the early news in a pretty vigorous way, the people have had it all over radio, they’ll have had an option to get it on cable television. So we have tried to change and give — I realize it’s a bit of a corny phrase — a dimension of added value to the major story of the day.

So in some respects, the big story of the day, “President Bush does X”, is not as important to us now as the second story, which is “President Bush did X because.”

TERENCE SMITH: There is a complaint among critics that there is a tendency in the media generally, and on television specifically, to almost lose what happened for why it happened. What do you say to that?

PETER JENNINGS: I actually think the criticism is somewhat misplaced. We don’t go into every day assuming that everybody’s seen everything. But if you can get news so many places, and if it’s obligatory for all of us who do the evening newscast to find a place in this shattered universe, then I think we have to play to what is our best strength. We are lucky at ABC to have a good bench of reporters who can give us the why and the why not of stories. So why not play to that strength and give people a litany of precisely what has happened at any given event they may actually have even seen live?

TERENCE SMITH: In the 38 years since Walter Cronkite took the CBS Evening News to 30 minutes, the format, essentially, has not changed. There is an anchorman, sitting in the chair you’re sitting in.

PETER JENNINGS: Right, and sometimes there’s been two.

TERENCE SMITH: And there have been two. Throwing it to correspondents. The basic format is the same. Can you imagine any other business that has stayed the same for 38 years?

PETER JENNINGS: No, I can’t. We fight all the time to have the broadcast adapt to the changing vernacular of production as well; all of our minds are being dragged at a different speed today than they were 25 and 30 years ago. And Howard K. Smith once said to me, “Peter, there are only so many ways you can slice 22 minutes.” And he’s absolutely correct. You can do several very short stories, or you can do fewer short stories and one good long story, or you can do two long stories.

I’m not a reporter any more for most of my life. I do a lot of writing every day and rewriting for the most part. But mostly I’m an editor, and what you do is translate your editor’s skills and form onto the evening news time, when you continue to knit the broadcast together, which I still think has some value. But we’ve all sat around and talked about whether it might be a good idea to just have correspondents introduce themselves from a variety of parts of the country. I think the audience finds it a bit unsettling when we try things like that.

TERENCE SMITH: The other extraordinary thing is, you have the same three white guys sitting in the anchor chairs for now the better part of 20 years. What explains that? Is there a resistance or fear of change?

PETER JENNINGS: I often joke with people, you know, that it’s ridiculous that the evening news should be done in this day and age by three middle-aged white guys, and the time will change. At ABC the news used to be done by Barbara Walters and a man, so we were the first to have a woman, and I think that time will come again.

But putting that slightly aside, I think, if it’s not too self-serving, what the three people who currently do the evening news bring is a measure of experience, both nationally and internationally, which comes into play in ways the audience never sees. As I said, I’m an editor most of the day, and I’ve had 35 years of experience, which I think they value in editorial terms. 

In some respects, I think the next generation of anchor people, men or women, would have not had the same opportunities that Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and Peter Jennings had, because we grew up somewhat more slowly in the system, had lots of opportunity to serve in a variety of posts, at home and overseas, and I think — and this is indeed self-serving–I think it’s hard to be an anchor person if you don’t know what you’re doing.

TERENCE SMITH: It seems like we’ve witnessed the evolution of the incredible shrinking newscast. When you take out the commercials, teasers and promos, how much time is actually left for the news?

PETER JENNINGS: Oh, like 22, 23 minutes. I actually don’t think that’s changed, consider we lose 10 seconds here and we lose 20 seconds here, and we fight like hell to get it back. But I think the actual news hole on the broadcast is roughly what it was. And as I’ve told people for 30 years, it’s an absolute insanity that people think that they can get all of their news in that one hole every day, which is, quite honestly, why we work so hard every day to make choices that are relevant, knowing as we now do how many opportunities people have to get news.

TERENCE SMITH: Av Westin once said that what they used to try to do in the past was do an illustrated headline service that in effect covered all the stories that would likely be above the fold on the front page of the New York Times the next day. You don’t want to do that?

PETER JENNINGS: Well, when I first came into the news division, you’d come into our newsroom here in the morning, you’d find the New York Times was your assignment desk. You’d pick up the New York Times, find out what the great resources of the Times had done that day, and go off and try to cover the story. If you look at the front page of the New York Times in terms of the main stories they do, they will almost all — unless they’re specialty stories like science or religion — will have been on the evening newscast in some form the night before. But there’s no — there’s no substitute, I think, dare I be complimentary to the enemy here, for the kind of time that you give it on public broadcasting.

Now, we do some of the news, I think, much better than you do on public broadcasting, but you do give the audience an opportunity to luxuriate somewhat in the news of the day. We don’t have that opportunity on a commercial network.

TERENCE SMITH: The other thing that’s happened in the 30 years, all the news divisions, all the networks have been bought out by big conglomerates. What’s been the effect of that across the board on the evening news broadcast?

PETER JENNINGS: None editorially. People ask me that all the time because there’s a general, and I think, healthy suspicion of big corporations and too much media and too few hands. It makes a difference in money. The truth of the matter is this is a phenomenon in the television news business which occurred when the corporate owners of the news divisions found out that the evening news, and particularly the news magazines, made money.

For all of the early years I spent in this business, we were loss leaders. We were leaders in the broadcast news field, and our owners were prepared to take the loss for the stature and the public responsibility of it.

That all changed when they figured out that news made money. And so the bottom line became a much, much bigger issue. But in editorial terms, I emphasize, I cannot think of a time when anybody in the parent corporation, whoever’s owned us — and I’ve been through three ownerships now — has ever tried to interfere with me on the evening news.

TERENCE SMITH: Does this show make money?

PETER JENNINGS: Yes, I hope so.


PETER JENNINGS: I haven’t the vaguest idea. And in some respects, go out of my way not to know. But I know that it doesn’t make as much money as it used to, because I know that the daily budgets for us now, in terms of covering the news, are tighter than they were before, which forces us to look at the world even more harshly from an editorial point of view, than we did in the past. 

TERENCE SMITH: There’s an irony there. This is supposedly an age of globalization where foreign news is more relevant to Americans in their everyday life and their economy than ever before.

PETER JENNINGS: Yeah. It’s a big struggle for me. We were… foreign correspondents for a long time. And it’s a hard one for me, because the conventional wisdom, perpetuated by almost everybody, is that Americans don’t care about foreign news. And our struggle here is to find a way to make the news of globalization as relevant to Main Street as I think it is to those of us who follow foreign affairs with a somewhat keener eye.

It’s a slightly despairing moment in that regard, but I think we’re a little bit confused in part because the country is confused. None of us any longer have the prism of the Soviet-American relationship through which to see the world, and so the world is less urgent to many people. It is certainly seen as less threatening by the vast majority of Americans. There’s no danger anywhere approaching the national borders. And so it’s a struggle.

TERENCE SMITH: Look ahead five or 10 years. Will there still be three evening news broadcasts? And what will they look like?

PETER JENNINGS: I can’t look 10 years ahead. I’ve never been able to. I think it’s possible to look five years ahead and think that there probably will be three evening newscasts. And I’m not sure they will look vastly different, based on the notion that if they stay within the same parameters now, there’s not much you can do by changing them internally.

TERENCE SMITH: And their mission will be essentially the same?

PETER JENNINGS: I think the mission will be essentially the same. You know, in Washington today you can see “World News Tonight” at 6:30 in the evening. You can also see it at 10:00 and 10:30 on cable. And I think once the networks figure out a way to make their newscasts more available as 24-hour cable is available, then I think it will still have a place. Certainly the three of us may not be doing the broadcasts, which I don’t think is a particular loss to anyone, but I think the news broadcasts will stay. I think it will be hard for a big parent corporation like Disney, to say to its public, “We don’t care about this any more, and we’re going to dump this.”

TERENCE SMITH: So you don’t expect, as some do, that the evening news will morph to a 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. broadcast, with news at the top and a magazine look after that? 

PETER JENNINGS: I think there’s some possibility of that, but the hardest thing in the world to change is an audience’s news habit. And you pointed out at the beginning that the three evening newscasts still command a very significant audience. I’ve seen them try to change the news hour in Canada, and I’ve seen them try to change it in Britain, and it’s failed. Those Americans who are accustomed to a national evening newscast in this format have always had it at the dinner hour, and not in the middle of their prime-time programming. We’ve experimented somewhat. After all, the day is more complete [at 10 p.m.] than it is at 6:30 in the afternoon.