Peter Jennings

Peter Charles Jennings, television and radio journalist: born Toronto, Ontario 29 July 1938; staff, ABC News 1964-2005, international anchor, World News Tonight, 1978-83, anchor and senior editor 1983-2005; married first Valerie Godsoe (marriage dissolved), secondly 1973 Annie Malouf (marriage dissolved), thirdly 1979 Kati Marton (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1994), fourthly 1997 Kayce Freed; died New York 7 August 2005.

Peter Jennings was wearing an old trench coat and waiting for a taxi in the rain the first time I ever saw him, in 1972. Standing in front of Beirut’s new Gefinor Centre, where ABC News had its bureau, he was the archetype of the foreign correspondent. He could have been playing himself in a film about a handsome, courageous young reporter who always got the story and the girl. He worked hard, however, to play down his good looks and detested the name his more envious colleagues gave him – “Stanley Stunning.”

I learned later that the trench coat had belonged to his journalist father, Charles Jennings, former director-general of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Peter Jennings was born in Toronto in 1938, and was in his early twenties, working for the Canadian television network CTV, when in 1964 he was spotted and hired by Elmer Lower of ABC News. Jennings stayed with ABC for the rest of his career, as a correspondent and, for more than 20 years, as anchor of World News Tonight. He was one of the most familiar faces on American television.

ABC News made Jennings the youngest anchorman in American network history. He went on to become a national news reporter, covering the civil rights movement and political violence in the 1960s, and was posted to Rome as the network’s bureau chief. ABC then assigned him to Beirut as its Chief Middle East Correspondent. There, he set up the network’s first bureau in the Arab world. His reputation for fairness and hard work had preceded him, and he was an immediate favourite with the Lebanese women, politicians and journalists.

In those pre-video days, television correspondents worked closely with their cameramen and sound engineers. There were no field producers and no round-the-clock live coverage. Jennings took his time to report, write and edit his stories before shipping them by plane to New York. The stories were more considered and longer than the breaking reports that came later with new technology and the layers of management in New York. He won the loyalty of the two Beirut cameramen he hired, Peter Sturken and Roupen Vosguimourikian, and the office staff. One of his many over-educated soundmen, John Andrews, later became a correspondent for the Economist.

Jennings hired many talented people to work in the Beirut bureau in the early 1970s – the Christian Science Monitor’s John Cooley, who had already written several well-informed books on the Middle East; Joe Fitchett, who later went to Paris to write for the International Herald Tribune; and Bill Blakemore, a teacher at the American Community School and a drama director at the American University of Beirut – as ABC radio stringers. From his father, Jennings believed that radio was “an intelligent man’s medium” and always filed more radio than television reports. His weekly radio commentary, Jennings’ Journal, was ABC News Radio’s most popular and informative programme.

The year after I met him, Jennings asked me to coordinate Arab world coverage of the war, do radio reports and work as a sound engineer. By common agreement, I was the worst sound recordist in network history. On my first day at work, 6 October 1973, Jennings left Beirut for Damascus to cover the war and told me, “You’re in charge.” I was 22 and did not know what I was in charge of. But Jennings had unfailing trust in and loyalty to those he hired, and that month of war taught me more about television journalism than any year in a journalism school. After wavering between philosophy and journalism, I settled on journalism – largely out of admiration for Jennings.

Once, we were arrested on charges of visiting Israel – a crime in Lebanon at the time. When the police transferred us from one security jail to another, we had to walk through Beirut handcuffed to each other. Peter, unlike me, had never been in custody before and was extremely embarrassed. For his sake, I covered our cuffs with a newspaper. He was not sure which looked more suspicious, two men handcuffed by the police or two men holding hands under a paper as they walked.

Luckily, we were released after 12 hours, during which Peter made friends with the dozen or so Palestinians in our cell. All his life, he befriended people without regard to their class, nationality religion or race. In New York, he used to take the bus home from work – despite his multi-million-dollar salary. He said he liked to meet real people, but his critics said that his Scottish blood wouldn’t let him squander money on taxis.

In the summer of 1973, he had married Annie Malouf, a beautiful Lebanese photographer and socialite. His father had just died, and he embarked on that second marriage in the hope of finding new stability. Peter and Annie travelled together on most of his assignments out of Beirut.

In 1974, they moved to London, and then the following year to Washington, where ABC made Jennings anchor of its first morning news programme, AM America – later Good Morning, America. He expanded his incomparable galaxy of overseas contacts to include the Washington élite of two administrations and demonstrated his skills as an on-air performer: cool, detached and informed.

ABC transferred him back to London in 1978 to pioneer an original format in evening news broadcasting. He became the international anchor for World News Tonight, in a three-man team that included Frank Reynolds as national news anchor in Washington and Max Robinson in Chicago anchoring stories from the heartland. The formula was abandoned only when Reynolds died in 1983, and Jennings went to New York as sole anchor. His influence at ABC meant that it consistently devoted more air time to international stories than its competitors at CBS and NBC.

After Peter and Annie divorced, Peter married Kati Marton, an ABC correspondent who had worked in Bonn. They had two children, Elizabeth and Christopher, and Peter was often named by American magazines “Father of the Year”. When I quit ABC in 1987 to write a book on the Middle East, I was kidnapped in Lebanon. It was the worst summer of my life and, coincidentally, of Peter’s. When ABC broadcast a tape of me confessing at gunpoint to being a spy, Peter – for almost the only time in his career – lost his professional detachment and cried on air. His wife was leaving him that summer, and mine left me shortly after my escape in August. Peter had been best man at my wedding in 1977. He and I spent a long time drinking as we used to in Beirut and lamented what fate had prepared for us. But he refused to feel sorry for himself for long.

Some time later, he met his fourth wife, Kayce Freed, a talented television producer in her own right and a beauty, in New York. She adored him and let him know it. A man who lacked the self-confidence that nature should have awarded him realised for the first time that he might be as talented as everyone told him he was.

They were the reigning couple of New York’s social, political and musical scenes; their house in Long Island became the site of an annual jazz festival, where no one was turned away. With Kayce, he came to relax and enjoy himself as he never had before. It was the happiest I had ever seen him. But his dream was still, as it had been when he was in Beirut, to retire to a ranch in the Canadian mountains and raise animals.

I remember one night in the seaside garden of an old house in Beirut, where we were having dinner in the early 1970s. Our hosts were David and Anne Gordon, who taught at the American University. David was trying to persuade Peter that his work was important and having an impact. At the time, Peter was one of a very few American television reporters who risked the ire of the Israel lobby by reporting on the injustices done to the Palestinians. “What you don’t understand, Peter,” David said, “is that you’re a big deal.” Everyone knew it but him.