Peter Jennings brought dignity and respect to his profession

by Brian Clarey

It’s not all too often that we print journalists admire, become influenced by, or even grudgingly show respect to our colleagues who commit journalism on the television screen.

Peter Jennings was different.

Jennings came up in the world of TV news in heady times: the advent of the Civil Rights Movement; the Kennedy years; the Vietnam War and the psychedelic revolution provided the backdrop for Jennings’ early years on the beat. It was an era in journalism marked by compassion and integrity, and the trust between news anchor and viewer was a sacred thing.

At 26 Jennings went behind the anchor desk for the first time, up against the likes of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. When he came up short against these lions, he took to the field and immersed himself in the craft ‘— telling with startling accuracy and grace stories that resonated with the people and shaped our world.

Jennings went to the Middle East in 1968 and established the first American news bureau there. He made other inroads out there as well, securing historical interviews with Anwar Sadat, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Yasir Arafat. Before the culture wars between that part of the world and this one became everyday news, Jennings was on the front lines.

He covered breaking news with equal aplomb, as evidenced by his work during the 1972 Olympics on the evolving story that involved Arab terrorists and murdered Israeli athletes. Jennings got his camera crew close enough to the members of the Black September group to get footage of some of their members, a considerable show of balls and savvy.

He witnessed the erection of the Berlin Wall as a reporter and he came from behind the anchor desk when it was torn down in 1989, getting close enough to secure a chunk of it as a souvenir.

Even as an anchorman, Jennings never shied away from the action.

Much has been made of the fact that he never graduated from high school, a fact which proves either that any half-educated nitwit can read the news or that Jennings was truly a remarkable man. We choose to believe the latter.

Jennings made many of his own editorial decisions. He wrote his own scripts and did his own research. He showed talent for ad-lib and often stumped his correspondents with provoking, incisive questions. His fastidiousness and attention to detail were legendary.

‘“If I knew the name of the person in the parade,’” said longtime ABC colleague Barbara Walters, ‘“he knew the name of the horse.’”

It is proper, then, that on the occasion of his death we remember the words of this great newsman.

The role of the journalist, Jennings said, is ‘“to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public.’”

Mr. Jennings: we’re on it.