In 2003, Peter Jennings became an American citizen, after nearly four decades of reporting for ABC. Once asked why, the Canadian-born Mr. Jennings admitted much of it had to do with September 11 — the day in which he spent more than 12 straight hours in the anchor chair, arriving shortly after the second plane hit the World Trade Center. For many reasons — habit, reassurance, loyalty — millions of Americans shared those hours with him. It was perhaps the only time in his 22 years at the helm of ABC “World News Tonight” when he understood what was happening not much better than his audience.
And yet September 11 was probably only the second biggest news story he ever reported — at least as it relates to the life of a single journalist. For someone whose own life was defined by the events of humanity, the biggest was his announcement on April 5 that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, in effect reporting his own imminent death. He would never return to the anchor chair, and died Sunday at his home in New York at 67.
Long before Americans knew where Fallujah and Kirkuk were, Mr. Jennings had specialized in the affairs of the Arab world. As a correspondent, he first went to the Middle East in 1969 to establish the first American news bureau and for the next several years studied the region in depth. His knowledge came through in his reports, though they would occasionally lean heavily against Israel. But Mr. Jennings did not confine his reporting. Indeed, many have already remarked that he made a point of stressing the “world” in “World News Tonight.”
Some no doubt see Mr. Jennings’ untimely passing as the end of a golden era of television news, when the network anchor’s patrician demeanor contrasts so sharply with today’s seemingly unbridled debate. We would argue that this idyllic view of network news springs mostly from liberals who have lost the most from its declining influence. Today’s news environment is vastly more diverse and penetrating than what Mr. Jennings inherited in 1983.
“In a trade full of egotists, he was a man of grace,” remarked David Frum, another Candian-born journalist. We include ourselves among those who often bristled at Mr. Jennings’ view of the world, but no comment on his objectivity can omit the fact that in his twilight years he honored America by becoming an American.