Death took ABC News ‘conscience’

Times Staff Writer

Anchor Peter Jennings’ death was met Monday with a cascade of sorrowful appreciations from national leaders, colleagues and viewers around the country as anguished ABC employees struggled to absorb the impact of his loss on the network.

Jennings -- who died at home in New York Sunday night four months after he was diagnosed as having lung cancer -- was hailed as a fiercely determined newsman who infused his broadcasts with a sophisticated sensibility honed by years as a foreign correspondent. Often demanding, he occasionally frustrated co-workers with his relentless probing, an approach many credit with raising the standards of ABC News.

He was lauded by everyone from President Bush -- who called him “a part of the life of a lot of our fellow citizens” -- to more than 25,000 viewers who posted messages on the ABC News website expressing their grief at his death.


“One word describes Peter Jennings on air: Class,” wrote one. “He shall be missed.”

With Jennings’ death, retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said that he felt “as if I’ve lost a member of my family,” while former CBS anchor Dan Rather praised Jennings as “one of the most talented, caring and successful electronic journalists of all time.”

The debonair broadcaster anchored “World News Tonight” for the last 22 years, half of his four-decade-long career at ABC. As managing editor of the evening broadcast, he oversaw each story that went on the air, personally editing nearly every story script.

“In many respects, Peter is the news division,” said Paul Slavin, senior vice president of worldwide news-gathering for ABC News. “There was never a decision that was made without considering what Peter thought about it.... He was, in a way, the persistent conscience.”

Jennings’ death forces ABC to confront a challenge that NBC and CBS have faced in the last year: settling on a successor for an established anchor. Brokaw’s handoff of the “NBC Nightly News” to Brian Williams in December was long-planned and widely praised as a seamless transition. CBS has tapped veteran Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer to temporarily replace Rather, who left the anchor desk in March, while the network mulls over a new format for its broadcast.

ABC executives said Monday that no decisions have yet been made about who will take over for Jennings. For now, “Good Morning America” co-host Charles Gibson and “20/20” co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas will continue to anchor “World News Tonight” on a temporary basis.

Network officials had hoped that the changes at the other networks this year would give Jennings a chance to regain the title of the top-rated evening newscast, a position he held from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. But after the anchor, a longtime smoker, learned he was fighting lung cancer in April, he immediately began chemotherapy.

“He has left us with a phenomenal foundation, and it is a foundation that we will move forward with,” Slavin said. “The corporeal part of Peter may not be here, but his thoughts and his ideas, his demands for excellence and his heart will stay here.”

“Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, a longtime friend who joined ABC a year before Jennings did, called his death “the passing of an era.”

“You can’t possibly overstate the loss to ABC News, yet at the same time there are a lot of very talented young people who work at the network,” Koppel said. “I hope people who take over his desk will always keep Peter’s example in mind.”

As an exacting editor, Jennings pushed himself and those around him relentlessly, often asking correspondents to repeatedly rewrite their story scripts.

“He drove everyone very hard, including and perhaps especially, himself,” said congressional correspondent Linda Douglass. “He involved himself in every detail of our news coverage, from deciding which stories were covered to how they were covered to how the stories were written. At ABC News, it felt as though he was in our bloodstream.”

Paul Friedman, a longtime executive producer of “World News Tonight,” said Jennings had an “insatiable curiosity.”

“He was a perfectionist, which made him terrific to work with in the sense that it was challenging all the time, and occasionally difficult,” Friedman said.

Jennings’ drive was rooted partly in his embarrassment that he never completed high school or college, according to friends and former colleagues. Wherever he traveled for stories -- which was often -- the anchor brought with him a suitcase full of books to read.

“He felt he had to prove himself,” said CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman, who worked with Jennings for more than a decade as a senior producer at ABC. “You always got the impression that he felt he was going to be exposed as a fraud any minute because he didn’t finish school. He just couldn’t rest. He never realized how good he was.”

Colleagues said Jennings also brought a sentimental, compassionate approach to stories that he rarely let viewers see. Slavin said the anchor would push producers to home in on the emotional core of the news, his voice breaking as he discussed a mother’s loss of her son in Iraq, for example.

“He is one of the most sensitive, emotional anchors in the business,” said Slavin, repeatedly referring to Jennings in the present tense.

Up until his final days, Jennings believed he could win his battle with lung cancer, friends said.

“Frankly, I thought he would as well, because I knew what a brave, fierce competitor he was,” Rather said. “But the odds were too long.”


Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this report.