Peter Jennings was Anchorman and Senior Editor of ABC Television’s “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” from 1983 until he announced he had lung cancer in April 2005 and retired.
Jennings was born in July 1938 in Toronto, Canada. His father Charles Jennings was, from the founding of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in the 1930s, the voice of CBC and came to be known as the “Edward R. Murrow of Canada.”
In 1961 Jennings found work at one of Canada’s first private television stations, where his jobs ranged from newscaster to host of a Canadian version of “American Bandstand.” When this station became part of the new private national network CTV, his famous last name vaulted Jennings to the position of co-anchor of its national evening news.
In 1964 Jennings was hired by ABC, moved to New York City, and within a year he became America’s youngest network news anchor. But his newscast ratings were weak, and after three years ABC replaced Jennings as anchor with veteran newscaster Frank Reynolds.
Jennings remained with ABC, however, as a network reporter. In 1969 he became the network’s correspondent based in Rome, then Lebanon. He conducted the first-ever interview with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
In the early 1970s, following his divorce from his first wife, Jennings dated Hanan Ashrawi, a Holocaust denier who would go on to become part of the ruling circle of the Palestinian Authority in Arafat’s regime.
In 1972, while covering the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinians at the Munich Olympics, Jennings referred to the killers as “guerrillas” and “commandos,” never using the word “terrorists.” (Martin Peretz, publisher of the liberal The New Republic, would write in September 2001: “Jennings tried to explain away the abductions and massacre of the young Israeli athletes. His theme: The Palestinians were helpless and desperate. Ipso facto, they were driven to murder.” In a September 2002 ABC News retrospective on the Olympic Massacre, Jennings stated that Israel should stop using that event as justification for regarding the Palestinians as terrorists.)
In 1975 Jennings returned to Washington, D.C. to host “A.M. America,” forerunner to today’s “Good Morning America.” In 1977 he transferred to ABC’s London bureau, from which in 1978 he became part of a triumvirate of evening news anchors along with Frank Reynolds and, from Chicago, Max Robinson. In 1983 Reynolds was suffering from cancer, and ABC chose Jennings to replace him.
A candid admirer of numerous aspects of life in Fidel Castro‘s Cuba, Jennings told “World News Tonight” viewers on April 3, 1989: “Medical care [in Cuba] was once for the privileged few. Today it is available to every Cuban and it is free. Some of Cuba’s health care is world class. … Health and education are the revolution’s great success stories.” When his rival American news anchors were prevented by a legal travel ban from visiting Communist Cuba, Jennings traveled there to do reporting with his Canadian passport.
According to former ABC Correspondent Peter Collins, when in 1989 Collins proposed to do a report from Nicaragua on the 10th Anniversary of rule by the Soviet-aligned, Fidel Castro-supported Marxist Sandinista regime, Peter Jennings intervened. “[Jennings] himself called me up in Managua and essentially dictated to me what I should say,” Collins told Cybercast News Service. “Basically what Mr. Jennings wanted was for me to make a favorable pronouncement about the 10 years of the Sandinista revolution, and he called me up, massaged my script in a way that I no longer recognized it.”
“The Sandinistas brought with them Marxist ideas about spreading wealth and creating a new, unselfish society,” read part of the Jennings-rewritten script that ABC broadcast. “And in the first few years, they did manage to reduce illiteracy, the infant death rate and launched the biggest land reform in Central America. But the Reagan administration saw the Sandinistas as a threat and forced them into a war with the U.S.-backed Contras.”
Jennings frequently pressed ABC reporters to rewrite their stories with a more leftward slant. In his later years he supported efforts by ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin to do the same.
On November 14, 1994, just days after voters had removed many Democrats and put a Republican majority in control of both houses of Congress, Jennings said in his daily ABC radio commentary: “Ask parents of any two-year-old and they can tell you about those temper tantrums: the stomping feet, the rolling eyes, the screaming. It’s clear that the anger controls the child and not the other way around. It’s the job of the parent to teach the child to control the anger and channel it in a positive way. Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week…. Parenting and governing don’t have to be dirty words: the nation can’t be run by an angry two-year-old.”
Among the most repeated themes in stories by Peter Jennings were that the United States was “lagging behind” the rest of the “industrialized world” in government-provided health care, child care, paid leave for parents and other social programs. “Mr. Bush believes in a universal tax cut,” reported Jennings on October 4, 2000, “which would mean a very large chunk of money not available for government programs.” His reporting depicted nearly every potential tax cut negatively.
On September 11, 2001, after Islamist terrorists had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jennings told his ABC audience: “It is certainly a motivating factor that the hatred of the United States, and the hatred of the United States as a patron of Israel, … is so intense …” In an interview with professional Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, Jennings inquired “how anyone could hate America so much that they would launch this kind of vicious, calamitous attack.” Ashrawi blamed U.S. foreign policy and Israel. Jennings permitted her to speak at length, never informing his audience about his close and longstanding relationship with her.
“My mother … was pretty anti-American,” Jennings said on the September 6, 2002 CBS “Late Show with David Letterman. “And so I was, in some respects, raised with anti-Americanism in my blood, or in my mother’s milk at least.”
In a report from Beirut on March 27, 2002, Jennings said: “It is Hezbollah, which means ‘The Party of God,’ that gets credit for liberating Lebanon from the long Israeli occupation. Yesterday, I went to see its 38-year-old leader, Hassan Nasrallah. He is a popular member of the political establishment. The Bush administration says Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. ‘Hezbollah was proud to resist the Israeli occupation,’ he [Nasrallah] says. ‘We gave our lives. We are not terrorists.'”
As war with Iraq approached in early 2003, Peter Jennings did numerous reports favoring continued inspections by the United Nations. On January 21, 2003 Jennings reported on “several hundred artists and writers walking through the streets of Baghdad to say thank you to Saddam Hussein” whose regime “has always supported the arts.” On his newscasts Jennings featured anti-war activists, described as noble idealists, but he never told viewers that the organizer of the largest protests was the Marxist-Leninist group International A.N.S.W.E.R.
Peter Jennings died of lung cancer on August 7, 2005 at the age of 67.