Worldly Wise: Reflections on Peter Jennings and the future
of international reporting
Jennings had two bad habits: he would bum cigarettes and he would
steal ledes. One was his weakness and led to his death and journalism’s
loss. The other reflected on his strength as a journalist.
I write this as a colleague and friend who worked with Peter
Jennings at ABC in the late 1970s. Peter was based in London
at the time. I was ABC’s correspondent and bureau chief
in Moscow and later in Bonn, Germany.
Peter tried off and on to kick his smoking habit, succeeding
for a long stretch before 9/11 when, by his admission, he fell
back into the habit. Even in the off periods, he had a tendency
to bum cigarettes. I’m a non-smoker, but I recall his tactic.
He’d find a target of opportunity and explain that he’d
stopped buying, but might he have one cigarette…and, perhaps,
a second for after lunch.
Sort of like a journalist asking an extra question to tuck away
for tomorrow’s story.
Peter was almost as smooth when it came to his colleague’s
best lines. As ABC’s London-based anchor, he would call
or telex Moscow—e-mail and the Internet were more than
a few years off—and strongly suggest that he liked the
lede line I’d crafted and wanted to use that to introduce
my report. Could I write a new opening, so he could have mine.
Typically, my response was, “Gee, I’m sorry Peter.
But we had to ship the film on the early flight. The open is
already tracked and integral to the story. You’ll come
up with something, I’m sure.” Note we were still
shooting on film and did not use very expensive satellites very
often in those days.
I enjoyed these jousts with Peter. I saw in them recognition
of the stories I was doing and Peter’s love of international
This was the time when ABC News President Roone Arledge created
the tri-anchor—Peter in London, Frank Reynolds in Washington
and Max Robinson in Chicago. The notion was each had an area
of expertise—government and politics for Frank, national
news for Max and international news for Peter. The format created
some awkward handoffs: “I’m Frank Reynolds in Washington…I’m
Max Robinson in Chicago…I’m Peter Jennings in London…now,
back to Frank….”
The foreign correspondents would not have changed it. The format
may have dictated an artificial balance, but we had a strong
advocate in Peter for more of our stories. On July 10, 1978,
the tri-anchor format debuted and the top story was my report
on the ongoing dissident trials in the Soviet Union.
By contrast, consider how little “news from overseas,” as
Peter would phrase it, you see on the networks now. There’s
the almost daily terrorist bomb blast in Iraq, the occasional
tsunami-like tragedy and little else.
ABC, CBS and NBC have largely abdicated world news coverage.
Too often what they air is an assemblage of on-scene footage
narrated by a disembodied voice in a London studio. If the sign-off
doesn’t say where, you can be sure the reporter’s
not there. The Russians, resorting to their old Cold War tactics,
have given ABC the boot after a recent broadcast about Chechnya
that upset the Kremlin crew. But ABC had itself scaled back the
Moscow office from which I covered the Russian vastness, attempting
recently to cover it with only a producer.
Former CBS chief foreign correspondent Tom Fenton’s retirement
legacy to the profession is a book--Bad News: The Decline of
Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All—that
laments the decline of world news in American media.
CNN International, as it’s seen in much of the world,
is where I can see my old colleagues Jill Dougherty in Moscow
or Mike Chinoy in China. CNN’s domestic service often stops
at the water’s edge. The two services bear scant resemblance
beyond the CNN logo. Fortunately for consumers of global news,
CNN, after a long hiatus, has resumed simulcasting a daily hour
of the international service.
Peter Jennings’ may not be the best advocate for journalism
education. He was a high school dropout who never went to j-school.
Though he lamented he had not resumed his formal education, he
was schooled by a world of experience, particularly as a correspondent
in London and the Middle East.
Peter Jennings’ death leaves me to ask who are the new
advocates for international reporting? Who’s telling us,
this may be a long way from home, but pay attention because it’s
important? Who’s reminding us that we live in a highly
interconnected global village if our only perspective is griping
about rising oil prices and cheap textile imports?
Thanks, Peter, for trying and often succeeding. Now, it’s
a job we may have to take on ourselves.