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Peter Jennings Remembered

Aired August 14, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The Jennings era. The ABC anchor's death brings a tidal wave of praise for his journalistic passion and new questions about the television news business he helped create.

Who will take over "World News Tonight" and become the face of ABC News? Will the networks continue to give short shrift to the international stories so prized by the globetrotting correspondent? And with Dan, Tom and Peter all gone, can nightly newscasts survive in a 24-hour media world?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the life and legacy of one of America's great anchors. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Peter Jennings grew up before our eyes. He was a boy anchor in the 1960s, and when that effort fizzled, Jennings became a tireless foreign correspondent, opening network television's first bureau in the Arab world.

In 1983, he took the anchor chair for the second time.


PETER JENNINGS, ABC "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT" ANCHOR: Good evening. The fate of Korean Airlines Flight 7 continues to anger but also to mystify vast numbers of people.


KURTZ: For 22 years, he covered politics, wars and terrorism, interviewed presidents and prime ministers. But in April came this stunning announcement.


JENNINGS: As some of you now know, I have learned in the last couple of days that I have lung cancer. Yes, I was a smoker.


KURTZ: The end came much too soon, and the 67-year-old anchor's death last Sunday prompted these moving tributes from his long-time rivals in a very exclusive club.


DAN RATHER, FORMER "CBS EVENING NEWS" ANCHOR: Can't talk about Peter Jennings without talking about his courage. This guy had guts. In the Hemingway sense that the definition of courage is grace under pressure. Peter's whole career radiated that.

TOM BROKAW, FORMER "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" ANCHOR: I think that what I always relished about having Peter as a colleague and as a competitor is that his passion was never tempered.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about Jennings and what lies ahead for ABC and network news, John Cochran, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News. Linda Douglass, ABC's chief Capitol Hill correspondent. And in New York, Steve Friedman, the former executive producer of "The Today Show" and CBS's "Early Show." And CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield.

Linda Douglass, people on the screen saw a smooth, suave, confident journalist. But behind the scenes, he was a tough task master, wasn't he?

LINDA DOUGLASS, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Oh, he really was. I mean, you wrestled with him every single day. I mean, the thing that the audience may not know about Peter was that he had a say in what stories were covered, how they were covered, how they were written, what every reporter did. He had very high standards for all of us, and he had especially high standards for himself. He drove himself harder than anyone else.

KURTZ: John Cochran, was he demanding to work with? You knew him very well.

JOHN COCHRAN, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It's going to sound strange to you the comparison I'm going to make. I think of Peter the way I think of the Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant.

People who played for Bear Bryant wanted to excel because they wanted his approval. They wanted the coach to be proud of them. I think that people at ABC felt that way. Yes, we wanted to excel because we wanted to beat the competition. We wanted to please the people in the executive suites. But we wanted Peter to think we'd done a good job. And Peter was our task master.

KURTZ: You once lived with him in London. What drove him to continue to work as hard as he did, even after he became a big media star?

COCHRAN: Well, he had the normal ambitions we all have, but he also really cared about the news. And he was also a very generous guy.

Peter and I, when we shared the house in London, I was working for NBC. And we had just moved into the house. We didn't really know each other. Mutual friends had gotten us together. I got a call from NBC, head to Cairo. Peter says, "Well, do you have some telephone contacts down in Cairo?" I said, "Peter, I've never been to Cairo."

He starts writing down a bunch of names and telephone numbers, including the private number of the Egyptian foreign minister, the chief advisers to President Sadat. And I said, "Well, Peter, that's very gracious of you, but after all, I'm the competition."

He said, "Well" -- he made a joke out of it. He said, "First of all, you'll ask the wrong questions." But he really -- he really was a generous guy.

KURTZ: Talk about -- talk about being well-wired. Jeff Greenfield, what sticks in your mind from the years that you worked at ABC News about working with Jennings?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: His -- his intrepidness. Peter came back as sole anchor of "World News Tonight" toward the end of 1983, just as the presidential campaign was beginning, having been in the Middle East and Europe for a decade or more, literally knowing just about nothing about American politics.

And his determination to plunge in and get up to speed was something to behold. And you could see in the Iowa caucuses that he was still a step or two behind, didn't quite understand it. By the time we got to the conventions in 1984, Peter was immersed in the stuff and wanted to know more and more and more.

A very quick story, but before every convention, when we would do the rehearsals, he would -- he would tell the floor reporters, "Go out and tell me about every state as though you were covering it." And I realized later what he was doing was listening to the three of us or four of us, taking notes, and he was getting his own briefing in the guise of a technical rehearsal about all 50 states in the country.

He just was absolutely unequaled in that passion to pick up every piece of detail that he could.

KURTZ: Steve Friedman, as somebody who worked for the other two networks, what is it about -- was it about Peter Jennings that so many people who have never met him feel this emotional attachment to him, especially in this week since his passing?

STEVE FRIEDMAN, FORMER EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, NBC's "THE TODAY SHOW": Well, I think part of it was we all grew up with him. He was one that, you said before, we -- he was 26 when we first met him, and we sort of grew up together and got old together and saw the world together.

KURTZ: It had to be more than that. A lot of people have been around a long time.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, but you know what? When you're one of these three guys, you're one of the fathers of the American media. And people just say, "I know that guy. I know that guy. He's in my home all the time. When 9/11 happens, I go to that guy."

And when one of them disappears, especially disappears forever in death, you really are attached to that person.

KURTZ: Let's take a look to what some of the pundits and Peter Jennings' own colleagues have had to say about him this past week.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": He wasn't an ideologue. What he was was a citizen of the world, you know? And he saw the world in a big vision.

TED KOPPEL, ANCHOR, ABC'S "NIGHTLINE": He was a spirited, wonderful, flawed, sometimes infuriating but always fascinating man. He was catnip to women.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: It was so typical of him to announce that -- that he had lung cancer, to say it himself, to not gloss it over.


KURTZ: Jeff Greenfield, Jennings also had his critics. Some people said he was too liberal. Some people said he was biased toward the Arab world. What do you make of those criticisms, or are they inevitable when you have such a prominent position on television?

GREENFIELD: Well, first of all, in that spectacular ABC tribute the other night, which was really a thing of beauty, I thought it was particularly gutsy for them to confront the issue of Peter's alleged pro-Palestinian bias. And I -- my own feeling of that is he was one of the first correspondents who knew that world at a time when most Americans never had seen a Palestinian on television. I think that -- that the rap that he was biased was not true.

I also think that Peter was part of the general so-called MSM, mainstream media, that, for conservatives, is now an article of faith that it is a liberally biased institution. I mean, what I saw in Peter was a skeptical guy that wanted to know stuff, but I think the rap about bias, which I might actually say is -- might be more credible about some people in the business I could think of, just didn't apply to Peter.

KURTZ: I noticed you were shaking your head when Jeff Greenfield was talking about that.

DOUGLASS: Well, because the thing that's so fascinating about the accusations about his pro-Palestinian -- so-called pro-Palestinian sympathies, the thing about Peter is he was a contrarian. He'd defy the conventional wisdom. He never bought into what the conventional wisdom was. And so that caused him to always look at the other side, maybe with a little bit -- you know, with an unusual intensity, number one.

And number two, in terms of the liberal bias accusations, as a good journalist says, it was always about challenging authority and questioning authority. I mean, if you remember, when President Clinton was president, ABC was very aggressive in covering the impeachment scandal. It was always about challenging authority.

KURTZ: John Cochran, Peter's great passion, no secret, was international news. He'd been chief foreign correspondent. You had worked overseas, as well. But these days, except for Iraq and terrorism, international stories are a much tougher sell on network news, aren't they?

COCHRAN: Yes, they probably are a tougher sell, but I think after 9/11, news executives knew that we've got to put this on the air. And I think Peter's legacy -- you know, Peter's in our DNA at ABC. We're going to continue to cover foreign stories.

And we've got correspondents in -- who are just terrific at this. We've got a great new younger generation of foreign correspondents. We've got people who are now working domestically for their careers. It would probably be good for them to stay here. They'd go on the air maybe more. They want to go overseas and cover big stories overseas.

KURTZ: But at the same time, Linda Douglass, because you worked for all three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC all have a fraction of the foreign bureaus around the world that they had when Jennings took over for the second time in 1983. That's got to have an impact when it comes to covering China or Russia or Africa or some of these less intensively chronicled countries.

DOUGLASS: But I think what John has just said is a very important factor in the decision to move forward in covering foreign news. Because of Peter's death, suddenly we are revisiting this question. He is certainly in the DNA of ABC News. In a way, he has the sort of influence over ABC News' thinking that Murrow had over CBS' thinking.

The younger generation of reporters is going to be very influenced by Peter's passion for covering foreign news. I think it will make a difference.

KURTZ: Steve Friedman, since Peter Jennings went off the air in April after that dramatic announcement, which we saw earlier on the show, the ratings barely budged for ABC's "World News Tonight." And the same thing happened at CBS. Bob Schieffer takes over for Dan Rather. Ratings -- they've all gone down a little bit for these newscasts, but not a big change. Same thing with Brian Williams taking over for Tom Brokaw at NBC.

So should we conclude from that that multi-million dollar anchors don't matter as much as perhaps we all thought?

FRIEDMAN: I don't believe that. First of all, the person who does the evening news is the name and face of the network. It's a patriarchal society, and Peter was the patriarch. They'll have to find a new one.

Even though Peter Jennings wasn't on the show, it was "ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings."

KURTZ: And still is.

FRIEDMAN: And it still is. So I think you have to look at the -- the next phase of what we're doing. And the next phase will be "ABC World News Tonight" with -- I believe it will be Charlie Gibson.

And I think that ABC -- I want to say one thing -- did a terrific job in celebrating the career of Peter Jennings, rather than mourning his death. And in his death and in that celebration, what they've done was make what he stood for a little more out there for the public to see.

COCHRAN: Howie, can I just add?

KURTZ: Please.

COCHRAN: ABC did a great job during Peter's illness of not leaking who his successor might be or even talking about his illness. It was like Peter's coming back. He's our guy. I know Peter was supposed to accept an award in September. ABC said Peter Jennings will be the person who will accept the award for "World News Tonight." It was very classy, and those of us who loved the guy really appreciated it.

DOUGLASS: And I -- that's also why the death was such a shock. Because the public wasn't prepared for the fact that he was going to die so quickly. Because they really protected his family in that way.

KURTZ: All right. I need to get a break. We will take a look at some of the work of Peter Jennings a little later in the show.

Coming up, is the evening news still the jewel in the network crown, or have the morning shows become more important broadcasts? We'll talk about that with our guests, next.


JENNINGS: Will you release the hostages, and when will you release them?

Someone actually reached up and handed me a small piece of the wall that they had chipped away.

High overhead, all morning, American fighter planes have been circling. Sarajevans wished those fighter planes would drive the Serbs from the gun positions.




JENNINGS: I like doing what I am doing because it is always an adventure. I'm always going somewhere. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. John Cochran, to those of us in the business, Peter Jennings was an icon, but you had the two-hour GMA special, you had the "Nightline" special, again, a two- hour prime-time special. Is there any chance this is being overdone?

COCHRAN: I don't think so, because it's clear from the reaction around the country people really cared. I think we at ABC needed this catharsis, I think same thing is true about people out in the country. The e-mails we've had, they've overloaded the ABC system. It's remarkable.

We didn't expect this. I think Peter himself would have been shocked to see this outpouring.

KURTZ: Now, the inevitable talk about succession. It's no secret that the two candidates most frequently talked about are Charlie Gibson, now the co-anchor of "Good Morning America," and Elizabeth Vargas of "20-20." Both of them have been filling in on "World News Tonight" now.

Linda Douglass, I'm not going to put you on the spot by asking you to cast your vote, but let me ask you a more general question. Is it time, because CBS is also in the market for a permanent evening news anchor. Is it time for a solo female anchor on one of the networks?

DOUGLASS: Of course.

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE) going to be a white guy club?

DOUGLASS: Of course. Of course. Of course the answer to that is yet.

KURTZ: Why has it taken so long? I mean, obviously Barbara Walters was a female co-anchor, Connie Chung was a female co-anchor, but some reluctance on the networks' part to have a woman?

DOUGLASS: I don't think it's any reluctance on the networks' part. I just think it hasn't happened yet. You know, I think it's time for a female president too, and that may not be happening yet either.

I mean, women did come into the business later. It has been a slower sell for the audience to accept the credibility of women as the figures of authority. These three men got us through some of the most difficult experiences in our country's life. We're used to that kind of comfort from a man. I think we're right on the edge of that time and maybe we're at that time.

KURTZ: Steve Friedman, you went out on a limb before the break by predicting -- we have the videotape -- that Charlie Gibson will be the next anchor of "World News Tonight."

I was going to ask you, because you know the morning show landscape better than anyone, he is doing so well now with Diane Sawyer, "Good Morning America" helping to close the ratings gap with "Today," don't you think that ABC may be reluctant to break up that winning combination as the morning now is as important as the evening news?

FRIEDMAN: Well, in this cycle, I predict that the name and face, whoever is the name and face of the network will be the evening news anchor. So therefore I think if it is Charlie Gibson -- and look, he was front and center on everything that happened, including the announcement of Peter's death, so you have to assume, assume, that he is the frontrunner for this job, I think he's going to get the job.

I think there might be a little bit of he'll do both for a little while in a transition period, but I think by the first of the year, Charlie Gibson will be the "ABC World News Tonight" person, and there'll be somebody else on "Good Morning America."

KURTZ: Jeff Greenfield, what about the generational question? Charlie Gibson, veteran journalist, he's 62, five years younger than Peter Jennings was. Do these broadcasts, these aging broadcasts with their aging audiences need somebody younger? Brian Williams, for example, 46 years old now at "NBC Nightly News."

GREENFIELD: Well, I think one of the great unanswered questions is whether or not a younger generation of news viewers is going to want to get the news in the way that us rapidly approaching senior citizens are used to.

The form of the network evening news basically hasn't changed since the days -- forget the ones you talked about -- Douglas Edwards and John Cameron Swayze and the news. They've gone from 15 minutes to a half an hour and that's the change.

And one of the big, big considerations here is, yeah, the network newscasts still outdraw certainly cable, 28 million combined viewers...

KURTZ: Combined.

GREENFIELD: You know, the highest rating on cable is "O'Reilly." But the fact of the matter is we don't know whether people with cell phones and computers and Lord knows what other gizmos, and iPod podcasting, are going to want the news this way and whether you can appeal to that generation just by having an anchor who's much younger.

KURTZ: But certainly, John Cochran, the morning shows are where the networks now make their money. Are they much more important in the firmament of network journalism than when you first broke into the business?

COCHRAN: Obviously, they're more important, but I still think the evening news is going to be there. I think when I'm off in my rocking chair watching the news on my cell phone, I'm still going to, at 6:30 Eastern Time, I'm still going to have the three networks -- you know, is the anchor guy or woman going to be a good bit younger? I don't think that's going into the calculation so much, because the studies I've heard about, people want the news delivered straight and in an authoritarian -- not authoritarian, authoritative fashion, and the age just doesn't matter.

KURTZ: I want to pick up this question after the break, and when we come back, in the post-Jennings era, are the network newscasts still (INAUDIBLE) to the need to change in this round the clock media age?

But first, as we go to break, a look at former President Bill Clinton being interviewed by Peter Jennings last year on how historians would judge him.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: And I don't really care what they think.

JENNINGS: Oh yes, you do.

CLINTON: They have no idea...

JENNINGS: Excuse me, Mr. President, you care. I can feel it across the room.

CLINTON: No, no...

JENNINGS: You care very deeply.

CLINTON: You don't want to go here, Peter.



KURTZ: Welcome back. Jeff Greenfield, you talked about the network newscasts still having a big combined audience, but let's face it, people aren't home at 6:30, they're getting their news on cable, talk radio, online, podcasts. Aren't these newscasts, "World News Tonight" and the others, becoming a lot less relevant?

GREENFIELD: Yeah. They're never going to have the explosive impact that they had when they had a combined 90 percent of the audience. Even the incredibly heroic work Peter did a decade ago in keeping the focus on the Balkans and probably helping change American policy, I am not sure any newscast in the years ahead is going to have that kind of clout.

KURTZ: Do you think about that when you do pieces for "World News Tonight," that you're not getting the massive audience you're used to?

DOUGLASS: You think about it a little bit. I mean, it still is the broadcast of record, just like the newspaper of record. You still know that the most important stories are chosen for their importance and that the news is actually covered. It's just going to have to be available at different times in different ways. It's going to have to be a more mobile process. But the broadcast itself should remain the broadcast of record.

KURTZ: But the argument, John Cochran, is that people have already heard the headlines by the time you folks come on at 6:30.

COCHRAN: And the idea is, as Peter always said, yes, they may have heard the news, let's tell it better. Let's put it in context. Do better writing, do better reporting, add something to the story, give it more value. That's what "Nightline" is always -- people talking about the future of "Nightline." People didn't watch "Nightline" to get the latest news. They want to get a better idea of what that big story today is.

KURTZ: But "Nightline," like "World News Tonight," in transition because Ted Koppel leaving at the end of the year.

Steve Friedman, can the evening newscasts, as John Cochran says, do it better, do it sharper, do it in a way that younger people, in particular, will still care to tune in?

FRIEDMAN: You have to do stories relevant to their lives. As John said, it has to be value-added news.

But the impact of the three people who do these programs also comes when there is 9/11, or when there is a war or when there is a big news event. You can't undercut that. That is very important for the networks.

KURTZ: I want to come back to Peter Jennings, Linda Douglass. You said he's in the DNA of everybody at ABC News. Is that something that is going to last for a long time? I mean, he probably is irreplaceable no matter how good a journalist succeeds him.

DOUGLASS: I think that will last. It really is as though he was in our bloodstream in a lot of ways. You hear his voice. And the high standards and the desire to be contrarian, to be skeptical, to challenge, I think all of that we have learned in a very intense lesson, thinking back on him in a way that we wouldn't have done if he were still alive. I think it will remain.

KURTZ: Jeff Greenfield, do you do anything differently as a result of having worked with Peter Jennings? Is the DNA imprinted on you as well?

GREENFIELD: The one thing I definitely do is make the one phone call or look up the one thread that I really wish I didn't have to, because this guy -- he once said to me about his script, "Tell me why I'm not entirely satisfied with this."

After I wanted to hit him, I realized what he was trying to do is say, "Go back and hit it again. You haven't done your best. Give it another shot." I really do hear that among other teachers, but yeah, I hate to say it to the infuriating guys (INAUDIBLE), but absolutely, he pushed in the best possible way.

KURTZ: John Cochran, brief final thought? COCHRAN: Well, I'm just going to miss the guy. I'll miss the phone calls. When he would do what Jeff was talking about, being careful with the script, some nights he would say, "If you're OK with this, I'll put it on the air. Are you really OK with this? If you're really OK..."

And of course, I'd say, "Well, maybe I'm not OK, I'd better make another phone call."

KURTZ: He put it on your shoulders. All right. John Cochran, Linda Douglass, Steve Friedman, Jeff Greenfield, thanks very much for an enlightening program.

Ahead, some personal thoughts about Peter Jennings. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Peter Jennings was the only one of the major network anchors never to appear on this program, and that, he told me during a long chat last fall, was no accident. He could hold forth for hours on election night or after 9/11 or a space shuttle disaster, but he wasn't all that comfortable talking about himself. In fact, he said he was a lousy interview.

Jennings was the understated man, the restrained anchor. And as I got to know him over the years, I came to appreciate those qualities. Other television hotshots might ingratiate themselves with a media writer, but Jennings sent me an e-mail only once, and it was not about him but a controversy involving a colleague.

Well, Peter Jennings didn't need to promote himself. His work, his passion for international news, his smooth and confident on-air presence all spoke for him.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER begins right now.


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