Remembering Peter Jennings
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ANNOUNCER: This is World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.
PETER JENNINGS: Good evening, everyone.
JEFFREY BROWN: For more than two decades, Peter Jennings was a fixture in millions of American homes each night, bringing the news of the day as anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight.
Born in Toronto in 1938, he was the son of a leading Canadian broadcaster, and Jennings, who never finished high school or attended college, began his career in Canada.
PETER JENNINGS: The Meredith March began in Memphis, Tennessee, three weeks ago.
JEFFREY BROWN: He joined ABC news in New York in 1964, and at age 26, began his first stint as anchor, a three-year experiment that he himself called a failure. It was then, reporting from the field, that Jennings began to come into his own as a correspondent. He opened the first American television news bureau in the Arab world in 1968, in Beirut.
PETER JENNINGS: It’s a decision to be an Arab state or not.
JEFFREY BROWN: And provided gripping reports from inside the athletes’ quarters at the Munich Olympic Games during the 1972 hostage-taking.
PETER JENNINGS: If I were to guess at the moment at which of the commando organizations this group is to come from, I’d be most likely to narrow in on a group called Black September.
JEFFREY BROWN: For more than a decade, he reported from many of the world’s hot spots.
PETER JENNINGS: The Lebanese army is going to occupy former guerrilla positions.
JEFFREY BROWN: In 1983, Jennings was named anchor and senior editor of World News Tonight. He was known for his calm and cool style at the news desk and continued to travel when the big stories broke.
PETER JENNINGS: Someone just actually reached up and handed me a small piece of the wall that they had chipped away. It’s those small moments that make up this extraordinary day.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jennings was in his anchor chair for more than 60 hours during the Sept. 11 attacks and the days that followed; at times sharing his sentiments with his viewers.
PETER JENNINGS: I checked in with my children, and it — who were deeply distressed, as I think young people are across the United States. And — so if you’re a parent, you’ve got a kid, in some other part of the country, call them up.
JEFFREY BROWN: In April, Jennings, who had smoked for many years, told his audience that he had lung cancer.
PETER JENNINGS: I’ve been reminding my colleagues today, who have all been incredibly supportive, that almost ten million Americans are already living with cancer, and I have a lot to learn from them. And “living” is the key word.
JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, his ABC news colleague Charles Gibson announced Jennings’ death.
CHARLES GIBSON: It is with a profound sadness and true sorrow that I report to you Peter Jennings has died.
JEFFREY BROWN: In February 2001, Jennings spoke with NewsHour media correspondent Terence Smith about his responsibility to his audience and colleagues.
PETER JENNINGS: I’ve had 35 years of experience, which I think they value in editorial terms. And if everything goes wrong — because remember, the anchorperson does many more things in the evening newscast — when everything goes wrong, I think the network wants to have someone in the chair who can knit the resources of the news division together in a way that shows he, in this case, or she, has some knowledge of what’s going on.
JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Jennings died at his home in New York. He was 67 years old.
JIM LEHRER: And now the thoughts of Peter Jennings’ friend, colleague and former rival, former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Tom, welcome.
TOM BROKAW: Jim, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here from Montana. It seems like a long way from my old occupation. But obviously my thoughts tonight are with Peter’s family especially with his children Christopher and Elizabeth and Casey, who has shown such great strength and dignity in the last four months. It’s been a very difficult time for them. But we hope now that Peter has found peace.
JIM LEHRER: Tom, what’s the most important thing we should know and remember about Peter?
TOM BROKAW: His passion for what he did. It was unrelenting, unremitting. Whatever Peter was involved in was the most important thing in the world. Even though you didn’t necessarily share that particular view on some occasions, he would work hard at persuading you that he was right. And I think what he did as a broadcast journalist, especially in that network chair, was compel America to look beyond its borders constantly.
He never lost his sense of internationalism, especially in the Middle East and especially in Europe. And it is to his credit that ABC News distinguished itself especially in Bosnia. That was a story that Peter, of all the network anchors, really owned for himself. He went there a lot. It was an important story. The American administration had a big investment in it. And Peter kept it before the American people.
JIM LEHRER: You know, Tom, the obituaries — and you just referred to it also — he was a man of the world, he was urbane, he was very articulate, well spoken, and all that. And yet he did not finish high school. Where did all — he said himself that he had no formal education to speak of. Where did all this come from, Tom?
TOM BROKAW: Well, I think some of it was compensation for not having a high school education. He often talked about that, but he grew up in a very urbane family in Canada. He was the prince of Canada at the age of nine. Jim, he had his own radio program. And I don’t know of anyone who had more facility for this business that we’re in, in terms of the pure mechanics of just broadcasting, just listening to him in that report he had great command of the language; he had a sense of restrained theater about him.
And then he lived in Europe for a long time; he lived in the Middle East. And it was the life that he chose to live. He was a very cosmopolitan man. But at the same time living in the upper west side of New York, moving into those rarefied environments, he would get home from the World News Tonight, change his clothes and go to a homeless shelter and help feed the homeless. That was also an important part of his life.
JIM LEHRER: You said earlier today that you thought he was kind of a — he was born as an anchorman. What did you mean?
TOM BROKAW: Well, I meant that he was born to be an anchorman because his father was a very important figure in Canadian Broadcasting, but the second half of my statement was the one that I’d like to emphasize.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
TOM BROKAW: Even though it could almost be considered birthright for Peter, he felt he had to go earn it. And he did. I remember when he was the boy wonder of ABC, the youngest anchor in the history of this business at a network level. And when that was not going well, a lot of stations around the country were trying to hire him in Los Angeles and New York and other places — they’d pay him a lot of money to become a local anchor — he turned them down.
And he went overseas and he became, in effect, a foreign correspondent grunt. He earned his credentials and he earned his way back to that anchor chair. And when he got there, I think he was much more comfortable with who he was then.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, a lot of people forget that. His first go at anchoring didn’t work out. As he said, “I had sense enough to quit.”
TOM BROKAW: He was 26 years old. That’s when I met him. It was in the mid-1960s. And he was a supremely gifted and very confident young man, but he knew that wasn’t working out. And he decided that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent. They were calling him “Peter Pretty” and “The Boy Anchor.” And it would have been easy for him to run back to Canada and hide. But he didn’t do that.
Now the other thing I want to say about Peter because I loved him so much as a friend and part of the appeal of Peter was that he was so opinionated. He would always tell you exactly what he thought about not just what he was doing, but about what you were doing. And it would be amusing to me sometimes. Occasionally, it would be irritating, but I could pick up the phone and call him and talk to him about that or he would pick up the phone if he’d say, “Well, Laddie, I think maybe I crossed the line the other day.” And I’d say, “Yes, Peter, I think maybe you went a little bit too far.” And it was part of that relationship that we had over the years that became more important to me in the last couple of years.
Last year, Peter said in a public gathering when Dan and Peter and I were there, he said the three of us have made each other better, and we all have the same journalistic values. We were first reporters and then anchors for — that was the second line in our job description, for ourselves. And I think that we felt pretty good about the work that we had done and the relationship that we had.
JIM LEHRER: You’ve said many times that Peter was your friend, that you were personal friends. And that draws skepticism as you can imagine, Tom, because you three people, you three men were involved in one of the most competitive enterprises you could possibly have. How could you maintain a friendship with a guy you were competing with so ferociously five nights a week?
TOM BROKAW: Well, the friendship would be when we’d ski together in Vail. I remember having a great day with Christopher and Elizabeth and Peter and Casey on the mountain. I remember another time when we were all out in Vail together or in Aspen – I can’t remember what. We had dinner. We saw each other in New York in social circles so we did have this friendship. And I always felt that I could call on him if I needed something in a personal way and I know that he felt that way about me as well. There was a real personal bond.
But that came to a halt when we got on the airplane and flew off to Prague or Johannesburg or Moscow or recently to Baghdad or to any other parts of the world where the action was hot and heavy. Then we were competitive, but we were competitive in a straight-up fashion. And occasionally we’d bump heads, but we could work it out. And that was, I thought, one of the tests of a friendship frankly.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Tom, much has been said, as you know, much has been made about your retirement, Dan Rather’s leaving CBS and now Peter’s death, that this is an end of an era, the end of the big all-powerful anchorman in the big chair. Do you see it that way?
TOM BROKAW: No, I think that’s been overstated. I also think there’s been far too much analysis of our role in the American culture. You know, frankly, we were working so hard every day just trying to get the story right and to beat the brains out of each other in a competitive sense that we didn’t have time to stop and think about being the oracle at the head of a network in some fashion.
I have said today to other members of this business, who are the younger generation, “Now it’s up to you. We’ve set the bar at a certain place. And we hope that you’ll keep it there.” And that’s how I feel about it. But the universe has changed. There’s no question about it. Cable news, the bloggers, Internet, all news that you can get access to with just a key stroke — that’s changed the business. People don’t come home at night, get together for dinner and then sit down and watch the Evening News or NBC Nightly News or World News Tonight as they once did. You know that as well as I do, and it’s part of the changing character of how we retrieve information. There’s a lot more information out there, a lot more choices to have. I just hope that the bar remains high.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Tom, good to talk to you, and I share your –
TOM BROKAW: Jim, I want to say one more thing.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Say it.
TOM BROKAW: Can I say one more thing?
JIM LEHRER: Sure you can.
TOM BROKAW: When people say, “Are you really friends with Jim Lehrer?”
JIM LEHRER: That’s a different -
TOM BROKAW: I condition that one a little bit.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We’ll pick that up some other time in some other place. But, again, thanks for interrupting your vacation to be with us tonight. And I know Peter’s family appreciates what you’ve done and said not only here, but earlier in the day and everywhere else for many years. Thank you.
TOM BROKAW: Okay, James.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you.