An Appreciation of Peter Jennings, One Year Later

The senior broadcast producer for ABC’s flagship newscast reflects on the legacy of Peter Jennings on the anniversary of his death.

A year ago today I received a call from my colleague Jon Banner, the executive producer of World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. It was a little after ten o’clock at night, on a summer Sunday.

“Peter just died, Tom. I’m headed for the office.”

In some ways the news was no surprise. Peter had been diagnosed with an advanced form of lung cancer four months earlier, and while he had fought valiantly — testing the limits of science, and deploying his own formidable energies — Peter had weakened, slowly at first, then profoundly in midsummer. So really we should have been prepared for such a call.

Still, when it came — “Peter just died” — the effect, for me at least, was like a punch to the stomach. It was — and it still is, one year on — difficult to imagine that a man of such vigor and vitality, such a consumer of life, had breathed his last.

“I’m on my way,” I said to Jon.

The year since has been long indeed. And not merely because a patch of uncertainty at ABC News followed Peter’s death — or because another intrepid reporter and colleague, Bob Woodruff, was nearly killed in a January 29 attack outside Baghdad. For many of us who worked with Peter for so many years, there is a simpler reason: We miss him. We think of him. And we are influenced by him, in one way or another, several times each day.

One such influence can be discerned at nine o’clock on any given weekday morning at the ABC offices on West 66th Street where we gather to begin discussing the day’s news. And where we — anchor Charles Gibson, and a half-dozen editors and writers — endeavor to build a broadcast which Peter Jennings might have watched, or anchored, with pride.

Peter was typically the most active participant at these meetings. Often he was the most informed, and, always, he challenged us.

Nothing pedestrian.

Nothing obvious.

Nothing the viewers will have seen done the same way on their local news.

If only I had a dollar for each time Peter asked, “What are we doing that will be different?” — “What will be distinctive?” — “What will the audience remember?” Sometimes, when he was left particularly dissatisfied at the close of the conversation, Peter would stare one of us down and ask, “What exactly do you remember — from last night’s broadcast?”

Peter Jennings bequeathed to colleagues a powerful voice that still rings in our collective ears as we consider the events of the day. We have benefited from that voice, heeded it, and tried in recent weeks to summon it as we grapple with a summer flurry of major stories: North Korea’s missile launches, terror in Mumbai, the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program and, of course, the fresh spiral of violence in Lebanon, a place Peter knew so very well.

Beyond a seemingly boundless supply of anecdotes and memories, Peter’s experience gave him an ability to grasp the impact and context of a story, the questions to be raised, the next steps to take as a complex situation took shape. Today we can easily imagine the prodding, the questions Peter Jennings would be asking. Who are we talking to in Damascus? Has anyone invested in a call to so-and-so in Jerusalem? Who is our best contact in the Beirut government at the moment? And so on.

I thought of Peter when the trains were bombed in India, remembered his passion for that country and his telling me once that among the finest documentaries he had ever seen was a film about the Indian railway system. I remembered, and I asked a producer to find that documentary and use it in our coverage. The other day a producer asked whether we should use footage of anti-Israeli demonstrations in Teheran and Damascus, and again I heard Peter’s voice and made a counter-argument: It might more interesting, I told the producer, to note that there had been few demonstrations in the Middle East as a whole. Saudi Arabia was condemning Hezbollah; the so-called “Arab street” was relatively quiet. It was a minor matter, but the sort of nuance Peter Jennings favored and encouraged.

He had, beyond his obvious gifts as a broadcaster, an uncanny ability to see the play of events a step or more ahead of everyone else. I recall small things — Peter’s order to move a correspondent to Cap Haitien, as the crisis in Haiti deepened in 1993; his almost instant understanding that the arrest of Juan Augusto Pinochet would have implications far beyond the fate of the former dictator himself. I remember Peter’s insistence that we cover religion in America more regularly, and American conservatism, too — long before it became fashionable to refer to a “red” or “blue” America. I remember Peter saying, when we reported the death of someone who he thought might not have merited a mention on the evening news, “When Mother Teresa dies, we’d better do a long and beautiful obituary.” (In the event, she died soon after Lady Diana — whose passing had been, in Peter’s view, over-covered and unnecessarily dramatized. Peter traveled to Calcutta, to cover the funeral.)

Small things. But of course we remember his prescience on larger, more substantial matters as well. In March 2003 as U.S. forces massed on Iraq’s borders, Peter traveled to Kuwait to speak with American commanders. During the trip he conducted a lengthy interview with General Tommy Franks, the man preparing to lead the invasion. It was a good interview — interesting in many ways — but what I remember most is a bruising exchange about an issue that at the time seemed distant, almost off-point, to the rest of us.

“Do you have enough men to win the peace?” Peter asked.

General Franks parried with answers about his preparedness for war. “We have sufficient military capacity to do the job that America’s military would be asked to do.”

“Enough to win the peace?” Peter asked again.

Franks dodged again, Peter pressed again, and for a time it appeared that Peter was badgering the general. Some of us felt uncomfortable about it. But Peter felt the question had to be asked. Of course now, three years later, it seems an obvious and necessary line of inquiry. At the time, no one else was asking.

So a year has passed. And while I take a moment to celebrate Peter’s life, and mourn again for him — remembering a great friend and colleague who left us at the height of his career, and with so many other dreams and plans left unfulfilled — I am also mindful of, and grateful for, the gifts he left behind: his appreciation of the charge we have (“To think — I am paid to report and then explain events to the audience!”), the awesome responsibility of the public trust, the understanding that there is always a stone unturned when it comes to reporting a story (as he put it, “another side of the coin”) and that there is always a way to communicate a point — no matter how complex or obtuse it may seem.

Peter Jennings detested complacency. He loved a fresh idea; “I am fascinated by everything,” he said, a comment used in many of the obituaries a year ago. “I get up every day thinking that something is going to happen in the world that I didn’t know about yesterday. And I have the opportunity to pass some of that on to the audience.” Perhaps more than anything, Peter had this zeal for living and working and learning and knowing that said to the rest of us, If I am so excited by what it is we do, then you should be, too.

And so we are.

And that — for those of us who still put together the program he built — is the legacy of Peter Jennings.

Thomas Nagorski is the Senior Broadcast Producer for ABC’s World News With Charles Gibson.

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Thomas Nagorski is executive vice president of the Asia Society.