Tuesday, August 09, 2005

THE LAST WORD ON PETER JENNINGS

Well, I watched all the tribute shows the other day on TV regarding Peter Jennings and I thought ABC News did a great job in recounting Jennings' life and career. I really liked watching all the old footage from the 1960s, from the beginning of Jennings' career up here in Canada.

What really struck me was when they dredged up an old anchor read Jennings did, presumably for CTV, where he reported on the FLQ. And what struck me was that it seemed odd and rather funny for Jennings to report on the FLQ, because it just wasn't him. That's the kind of thing reserved for some big CBC journalist or someone like that. But Jennings wasn't a typical Canadian journalist. Instead he was a world-class journalist who happened to be Canadian.

His stories, his beat, was the foreign beat: the Middle East, mainly, during much of the 1970s. While most of the other prominent Canadian journalists were covering Levesque and Trudeau and all the rest of it, Jennings was interviewing world leaders, political activists and Ayatollahs. His demo reel would have on it standups in war zones and at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and his memorable reportage from the Munich Olympic Games, among other places.

And by performing so admirably on the world beat, Jennings rose to the top of the TV news business and, with his contemporaries Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, dominated a great era of TV news coverage of important world events: from the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid in South Africa, to the horrible terrorist attacks in the USA and the subsequent War on Terror and combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. In doing such a capable job, Peter Jennings gave all Canadian journalists a good name. Canadian journalists who wanted to see the rest of the world on someone else's ticket were able to come to America and work for American news organizations and TV stations, in large part because Peter Jennings paved the way for it to happen. News organizations recognized that Canadians could look at American stories with a fresh and possibly more neutral perspective, and not just on matters regarding American policies in general. A fresh pair of eyes might be able to pick up the unique quirks of the American experience and culture, something Jennings was able to do thoughout his career.

Jennings was always very proud of his roots and never forgot that he was a Canadian. What is also obvious to me is that Jennings also loved the United States and loved covering American news. His obvious on-air emotion covering the September 11th tragedy was real, and no doubt that tragedy was why he finally decided to seek out and become a US citizen not long ago. He got started at ABC in the 1960s covering civil rights struggles in the deep South, and was never out of place covering American politics. I remember the many times watching Peter Jennings team up with the legendary David Brinkley at political conventions and on election night coverage during the 1980s and 1990s. I also remember Jennings' stamina for some of the unforgettable stories of this new century: the marathon election nights of 2000 and 2004, the nonstop coverage of September 11th, and most memorable of all, the amazing coverage of the arrival of the Year 2000 around the world. Jennings was on the air for 25 hours straight that day and the coverage was amazing, anchoring one of the most memorable productions ABC ever produced.

My condolences to Jennings' family and everyone at ABC News. Peter Jennings will be sorely missed.

I truly think an era has ended. The three titans of the network news from the 1980s, Brokaw, Rather and Jennings, are all gone. Now it's up to network news to figure out a new direction for themselves and for how to cover the news. Clearly, I think the future is in the Internet and in podcasting, and delivering video to your cell phones and instant-messaging devices. TV news is going to have to do much more than simply remain on television, and I expect we will see much more of a "team" structure in network news and much less focus on the anchorman at 6:30PM. The other thing now is that it's really the morning news anchors like Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer that are the big stars of network TV news. And frankly it's the morning shows, Today and Good Morning America, that rake in the dough these days. Problem is that they tend to focus on a lot of softer stories and lifestyle-type pieces. Their idea of a big interview is The Runaway Bride, or Amber Frey, or someone like that.

There will be a lot of pressure on the evening newscasts to go this route and there are some people who say they should go with younger, hip anchors, just to get a younger audience. But I think crass programming tactics will not work. What they need to do is get back to delivering an exciting newscast every night, newscasts where the "big interview" is with some world leader, like back in the old days, back when the "big get" was the Ayatollah or Yasser Arafat or Anwar Sadat, or someone like that. They have to get away from the boring domestic lifestyle stories and the emotional-type stuff, and get back to covering real news in a vigorous manner.These newscasts shouldn't be doing so many stories about new drugs you can take for your arthritis. They should be sending their correspondents across the world, every chance they get. The reason people tuned into the network news in the old days was to watch the big stories, and that's what they ought to do again. World news is interesting, and exciting, and relevant.

And they also need total credibility in the anchor chair. NBC and CBS recognized the need for this when they handed the anchor desk to Brian Williams and Bob Schieffer, and both have proven to be inspired choices. ABC would do the same if they prodded Charles Gibson to take the anchor chair. He's got the range of hard-news experience and visibility that ABC needs at the moment, and has done a capable job filling in at the anchor desk the last several months. Gibson is about the only person left at ABC News who could possibly survive in the anchor chair, taking over from the late, great Peter Jennings.

UPDATE: The planned ABC tribute to Peter Jennings will finally air Wednesday night at 8PM, and it will be two hours.

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