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What I Learned From Peter Jennings

by John on 06/09/2015

(A post from nearly 10 years ago I wrote on hearing about Peter Jennings’ death. Still holds true today.)

Although I was expecting the news, the announcement of Peter Jenning’s death has hit me rather hard.

First, Peter’s passing is a reminder that we have truly ended an era in news. The network news anchor, the superstar status of which The New York Times mentioned this morning, is nearly gone. Yes, I am someone who cherishes the future of news and the New Media’s ability to include and educate many more people. But, let’s face it, for many of us we spent each night with someone like Peter, or Tom Brokaw, or Dan Rather. They are halcyon days for me.

The second reason for my sadness is my fond memories of a short, personal experience with Peter. I worked for four local news stations – three of them were ABC affiliates, so I spent many years watching Peter. Even as an anchor reporter at a CBS station, Peter was still “my anchor.”

It was August 1, 1990. I was in the newsroom of KTNV-TV in Las Vegas at 9 p.m. Pacific Time. I was the sole anchor of the 11 o’clock newscast. This was my first main anchor job and I was also the station’s managing editor. The station, at that time, was horrible and horribly underfunded. There were no computers, just old typewriters and the 1940’s style ticker tape news machine, which had just blurted an odd beep and cranked out a quick paragraph: “Bulletin. Iraqi troops are massing on the Kuwaiti border.”

I told the show producer we were switching the line-up to lead with the new, breaking story. The producer said he didn’t want to change the run-down because it was too late (two hours before a newscast!) And there was no video, he said. (Saddam Hussein did not have “alert the media” in his lexicon of phrases to get cameras out there.) In defense of the producer, he was a former floor camera man who was a great editor, who was forced to work alone with me, and he did not have any interest in world events. Still, I won the battle and we led the show – with the Iraqi story – using graphics to show the Middle East and to explain that this could mean we were going to war – which hit home because Nellis Air Force Base is in our backyard.

Next, I wanted to prepare for the stories of the next day, but then I realized I was being flown to New York City to shoot promos with Peter Jennings. It was an ABC ritual to take a day during the summer, have all the local news anchors fly to New York, and record promos with Peter. I was excited about meeting him, but how much time would I get with Peter Jennings; there would be dozens of other anchors there. And besides, I really was excited about an international story with such strong connections in Las Vegas. But the station told me I had to fly out anyway since the tickets were purchased and non refundable. Luckily for me, my flight left at 5 a.m. Las Vegas time. I assume while I was over Kansas, ABC called all the affiliates and cancelled the promo shoots, so no anchor would be going to New York – except me. Since the station was too cheap to pay the extra money to bring me, I stayed in New York for three days.

The folks at ABC couldn’t have been nicer. They felt badly for me even though I was tickled to be there. I could hang around the news facilities and watch for three days. But, they said, you will not get a chance to do the promos. “Peter is going to be tied up the whole time with the Iraqi situation.” Fortunately, they were wrong.

I had spent the first two days watching reporters edit packages and over-hearing producers putting together line-ups. My first lesson from Peter was his office. I never went inside. I was only told “that’s Peter’s office” and they pointed to a closed door. They said he was working the phones all the time. Remember, Peter was the first correspondent to open a bureau in the Middle East. He had great contacts there. For the first day, I never saw the door open. This man was truly a newsman who worked – something I had always strived to do.

Occasionally he would pop out to discuss something with someone or do a news brief. Lesson number two was about to happen from afar. I was able to sit not too far away – and too close – to the anchor desk when he did World News Tonight. What an opportunity to observe him delivering a newscast. Smooth and cool from the chest up, Peter fidgeted with his pen and his feet seemed to dance as he delivered the news. Beneath his collected manner was a tension that, for me, translated to the audience as energy. This sounds silly, but watching his body language and how he moved, had a great impact on my anchoring style. I saw the master. Needless to say, I continued to study him and his style for years. It helped me created my own style and, I believe, made me one of the best local anchors who could handle breaking news or prepare and deliver any big live story.

As my visit was ending, one of the ABC promo people, a very delightful woman whose name I do not remember, approached Peter about me. I assume she said something like, we have this local anchor who has been here for three days, he’s been a nice guy, he has observed, and if you had a minute could you speak to him? Peter, not only agreed to speak to me, he said he would do the promos with me.

So, for about a half-hour, I shot promos for Las Vegas and chatted with Peter Jennings. He was an elegant man with a voice that resonated and the finest gray-blue suit I had seen. Although I felt like I was meeting Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth, I composed myself and made sure I came across like a newsman myself. It seemed to work since we had a nice guy-to-guy chat about the news, women including my female co-anchor, and Las Vegas. He was perplexed about the station’s lousy ratings. In fact, as we shot the promos together, he refused to read some of the copy the station had written for him like “Las Vegas is watching ABC News.” Peter would say, “Move to the next one.” He wasn’t saying something that was not true – especially since I had just told him we were last in the ratings – as was he. Another lesson: don’t get caught up in the hype of promos.

The last lesson I received from Peter was his humility. Despite the fact, he was making millions, he had the ability to make everyone around him feel comfortable. He would joke with the floor crew and allow them to joke back with him. He was reading one lengthy promo while I was there. In the midst of it, he faltered and changed the wording in mid-sentence while using his unique head shake. If you go back and watch his broadcasts, Peter had this waggle of the head which could be construed as either nervous or erudite. I think it was a motion that kick-started his brilliant on-the fly, in-his-mind editing skills. This time the crew razzed him about going overboard on the gesture and even mimicked him. He laughed with them and razzed them back. There was a lot of caring in that newsroom. Another lesson: treat everyone as equals. As a result of seeing Peter with his colleagues, I made sure every television set I anchored from would have that type of camaraderie.

Peter, thank you.

 


 

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