ABC newsman Peter Jennings died from lung cancer in 2005, he left a
void in the industry that has yet to be filled. Along with the
likes of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Jennings
helped revolutionize television news, sitting on both sides of the
desk, transforming the genre from a 15-minute afterthought to a
major component of network broadcasting.
The editors of PETER JENNINGS: A REPORTER’S LIFE, including
his wife, have collected the thoughts and memories of scores of
family, friends and colleagues who are universal in their praise
and turned these stories into an oral biography. It seems as if
Jennings was almost predisposed to the profession. As the son of
one of Canada’s most respected radio broadcasters, he got an
early start, hosting his own children’s show as a
nine-year-old. Formal education held little interest for Jennings;
these days he might have been diagnosed with ADD. His success,
despite dropping out of high school, was truly remarkable.
Jennings was just 26 when he was handed the anchor assignment for
ABC News in 1965, a job to which he admitted he was not suited at
the time. He earned his stripes by going out into the field ---
far, far afield to Europe and the Middle East where he thrived on
the exotic surroundings and the action.
The entries in A REPORTER’S LIFE reveal a man in a hurry,
ever curious and always willing to do whatever it took to get the
job done, even when that meant putting himself in harm’s way.
Jennings was no “Scud-stud,” a term used to describe
reporters who made a name for themselves during the first war in
Iraq; he didn’t even like to fly. But he impressed everyone,
from his sound men to heads of state, with his ability to soak up
information and present it to his audience.
When he stepped down as an active reporter to once again take over
the anchor desk for ABC News, he brought that same restlessness
with him. He was a demanding boss, always expecting the reporters
to do the same thorough job he did. But his humanity was always
evident. During the coverage on 9/11, he wanted the audience to see
the devastation of the World Trade Center rather than in-studio
shots of him. And he was never afraid to defer to experts or admit
he did not know every issue involved.
Many of those interviewed said that Jennings never wanted to be the
center of attention, which made his on-air revelation of his
illness all the more conflicting. For him, it served as an abject
lesson, another chance to educate his viewers.
The format of A REPORTER’S LIFE both works and doesn’t
work. Since it’s not a straightforward biography, it appears
choppy at times, a series of mini-monologues interspersed with
Jennings’s own words. It is also understandably biased; you
won’t find too many speaking ill of him. On the other hand,
these are the people who knew Jennings best, and the book serves as
their final chance to pay him tribute.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 18, 2011