- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

Peter Jennings refers to himself as an "old-timer" at ABC News, having been there since 1964 and a news anchor for the past 18 years.

"In order to be an anchorperson, you have to have a sense of history and you have to understand context, and you have to have had enough experience to make judgment calls," says the 62-year-old anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight."

Only television, perhaps, could make celebrities of those who read the news, often reported by others. Indeed, the term "anchorman" ("anchorperson" is the politically correct term) is an Americanism; in Britain, for example, readers of the news are called news readers, and they're not such celebrities as in the United States.

"More than anything else, I'm an editor," Mr. Jennings says. "I come to work early in the morning and I edit a broadcast throughout the day, and then I go on and anchor the broadcast."

When he made his debut as ABC's boy wonder more than 35 years ago, his youth, inexperience and elegant diction led some critics to dismiss him as just another network pretty face. The TV networks' judgment calls on Election Night when the networks declared first that Democrat Al Gore, then Republican George W. Bush, had won the key state of Florida in the presidential election have led to public criticism and even congressional hearings.

This clearly galls Mr. Jennings, whose own news judgment fed doubts even as the flip-flopped projections were being made.

"On Election Night, I almost didn't make the second call in Florida," he says.

He recalls exchanging troubled glances with ABC analyst Mark Halperin in the wee hours of Nov. 8, even as he "could hear in my ear the control room agitating" to declare Mr. Bush the winner though the final margin in Florida proved to be less than 1 percent of the vote, and the outcome was not conclusively decided until a Dec. 12 Supreme Court ruling ended Mr. Gore's bid for extra recounts.

The networks' Election Night errors were "serious mistakes," but "not the end of the world."

"It's hard to judge whether it has truly undermined public confidence [in network news]," he says of the miscues. He notes that his own network was quick to admit "we screwed up," and to explain to viewers "why we made mistakes under competitive pressure."

Competitive pressure from 24-hour-a-day cable news networks and Internet news sites has led ABC News to "focus better on what we do best, which is context, added value on the big national and international stories," he says.

Live coverage of breaking news is "really the hardest work of being the anchor, because you're often flying by the seat of your pants on a subject with which you may be less or more familiar."

Following an interview at ABC's Washington bureau, the New York-based broadcaster in town to pick up the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcasting from the National Press Foundation hurried downstairs to a studio for one of his "seat of the pants" jobs, presiding over the network's live coverage of President Bush's first White House news conference.

Said to be the highest-paid network anchor earning more than $8 million a year Mr. Jennings has lately experienced a ratings slump. "World News Tonight" long battled NBC's "Nightly News" for the No. 1 spot, but has seen its audience decline in the past six months.

He has seen rough spots before. His father was Charles Jennings, a leading Canadian broadcaster, and young Peter made his radio debut at age 9. He dropped out of high school at age 17 and worked at an Ontario radio station before eventually signing on with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

While covering the 1964 Democratic convention for CBC, he was spotted by the president of ABC News, who hired him and sent him to cover Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful presidential campaign. He also covered the civil rights movement in the South.

He had been an ABC reporter for only a few months when the network, hoping to lure younger viewers, made Mr. Jennings the anchor of its weeknight news broadcast a move he later called "a little ridiculous."

"A 26-year-old trying to compete with [veteran CBS anchor Walter] Cronkite… . I was simply unqualified," he told author Barbara Matusow in 1983.

Youth was not Mr. Jennings' only problem in his anchor debut. His prep-school accent struck some viewers as snobbish, and his unfamiliarity with American culture once led him to mistakenly identify the Marine hymn as the Navy anthem, "Anchors Aweigh." Rivals, perhaps envious, said his good looks some even called him "pretty" smoothed his way.

After more than two years, ABC decided he should step down from the anchor job. The network sent him overseas, where his coverage of the Middle East and other global hot spots earned him awards and the respect of television colleagues. He became ABC's chief foreign correspondent in 1975 and was named anchor of "World News Tonight" in 1983 18 years after his first anchor job.

"One of the great things about having worked at ABC News all these years is that they gave people like me and ['Nightline' anchor] Ted Koppel we're the two old-timers here now they gave us the chance to develop," he says of his 37 years with the network. "So I had all those years overseas, I had the time in Washington, et cetera, et cetera."

Noting the much-remarked county-by-county election map in the New York Times showing the nation divided between red counties that voted for Mr. Bush and blue counties that went for Mr. Gore, he says: "I got an impression of a divided America long before the map was produced, and there is something of a culture war going on… . You see it in the whole argument about culture and mores and morals and the way we raise our children and what's happened to the family."

Mr. Jennings, who recently co-authored with Todd Brewster an "American Perspectives" article on the history of the 10th Amendment, sees the political side of those cultural tensions.

"I think we're at a time in the country where states' rights, which are reflected in that [election] map, are being emphasized to a greater degree," he says. "We're certainly seeing it in recent Supreme Court decisions."

Religion also influences the nation's cultural tensions, and Mr. Jennings notes that he hired Peggy Wehmeyer, the only network-TV news reporter exclusively covering faith issues, as ABC's religion correspondent. "Religion, spirituality is a huge issue in American life," he says. "Always has been, since the Founding Fathers, and while people in newsrooms are often uncomfortable with religion … people's religion and their spirituality intersects with almost every dimension of their lives."

Having a religion editor helped, he said, when John Ashcroft a member of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination was nominated as attorney general.

"You could feel the tension and you could feel some of the bigotry towards Mr. Ashcroft on the basis of the fact that he was Pentecostal," he says. That led to a "World News Tonight" segment exploring Pentecostal beliefs.

But Mr. Jennings, regarded by conservatives as one of the most liberal personalities in TV news, bristles when asked about liberal bias in the media.

"I don't use labels," he says. "I dislike labels intensely. I do not use, for example, the phrase on our broadcast 'right-wing Republicans.' I simply do not use it. I do not refer to 'fundamentalist right-wing' Christians. I'm anti-label, I think, as much as anybody in the business."

• Researcher John Sopko contributed to this article.


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