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Monday, August 8, 2005 - Page updated at 09:52 AM

Veteran TV news anchor Peter Jennings dies of cancer

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Peter Jennings, the suave, Canadian-born broadcaster who delivered the news to Americans each night in five separate decades, died yesterday. He was 67.

Mr. Jennings, who announced in April that he had lung cancer, died at his New York home, ABC News President David Westin said late yesterday.

"Peter has been our colleague, our friend and our leader in so many ways. None of us will be the same without him," Westin said.

With Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, Mr. Jennings was part of a triumvirate that dominated network news for more than two decades, through the birth of cable news and the Internet. His smooth delivery and years of international reporting experience made Mr. Jennings particularly popular among urban dwellers.

Mr. Jennings was the face of ABC News whenever a big story broke. He logged more than 60 hours on the air during the week of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, offering a soothing sense of continuity during a troubled time.

"There are a lot of people who think our job is to reassure the public every night that their home, their community and their nation is safe," he told author Jeff Alan. "I don't subscribe to that at all. I subscribe to leaving people with essentially — sorry it's a cliché — a rough draft of history. Some days it's reassuring, some days it's absolutely destructive."

The announcement four months ago that the longtime smoker would begin treatment for lung cancer came as a shock. "I will continue to do the broadcast," Mr. Jennings said, his voice husky, in a taped message that night. "On good days, my voice will not always be like this."

But although Mr. Jennings occasionally went to the office between chemotherapy treatments, he never again appeared on the air.

"He knew that it was an uphill struggle. But he faced it with realism, courage and a firm hope that he would be one of the fortunate ones," Westin said. "In the end, he was not."

Broadcasting was the family business for Mr. Jennings. His father, Charles Jennings, was the first person to anchor a nightly national news program in Canada and later became head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s news division. A picture of his father was displayed prominently in Mr. Jennings' office off ABC's newsroom.

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Charles Jennings' son had a Saturday-morning radio show in Ottawa at age 9. Peter Jennings never completed high school or college and began his career as a news reporter at a radio station in Brockton, Ontario. He quickly earned an anchor job at Canadian Television.

Sent south to cover the Democratic national convention in 1964, the handsome, dashing correspondent was noticed by ABC's news president. Mr. Jennings was offered a reporting job and left Canada for New York.

As the third-place news network, ABC figured its only chance was to go after young viewers. Mr. Jennings was picked to anchor the evening news and debuted on Feb. 1, 1965. He was 26.

"It was a little ridiculous when you think about it," Mr. Jennings told author Barbara Matusow. "A 26-year-old trying to compete with Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. I was simply unqualified."

Critics savaged him as a pretty face unfit for the promotion. Using the Canadian pronunciations for some words and once misidentifying the Marine Corps' anthem as "Anchors Aweigh" — the official song of the U.S. Navy — didn't help his reputation. The experiment ended three years later.

He later described the humbling experience as an opportunity, "because I was obliged to figure out who I was and what I really wanted to be."

Assigned as a foreign correspondent, Mr. Jennings thrived. He established an ABC News bureau in Beirut, and became an expert on the Middle East. He won a Peabody Award for a 1974 profile of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

On the scene at the Munich Olympics in 1972, Mr. Jennings was perfectly placed to cover the hostage-taking of Israeli athletes by an Arab terrorist group. He and a crew hid in the athletes' quarters for a close-in view of the drama.

Mr. Jennings returned to the evening news a decade after his unceremonious departure. In 1978, ABC renamed its broadcast "World News Tonight," and instituted a three-person anchor team: Frank Reynolds based in Washington, Max Robinson from Chicago and Mr. Jennings, by then ABC's chief foreign correspondent, from London.

After Reynolds' death from cancer, ABC abandoned the multi-anchor format and Mr. Jennings became sole anchor on Sept. 5, 1983.

In 1986, Mr. Jennings began a decade on top of the ratings. His international experience served him well in explaining stories such as the collapse of European communism, the first Gulf War and the terrorist bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland. He took pride that "World News Tonight," as its name suggested, took a more worldly view than its rivals did.

With Americans looking more inward in the mid- to late-1990s, NBC's Tom Brokaw surpassed Mr. Jennings in the ratings. ABC was still a close No. 2, however. When Brokaw stepped down in November 2004, followed shortly by Rather, ABC began an advertising campaign stressing Mr. Jennings' experience — an ironic twist given how his ABC News career began.

But ABC was never able to learn whether Mr. Jennings could take advantage of his role as an elder statesman; his cancer diagnosis came only a month after Rather left the anchor chair.

Mr. Jennings was proud of his Canadian citizenship, although it was occasionally a sore point with some critics. When Mr. Jennings spoke at the dedication of a museum celebrating the U.S. Constitution in 2003, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told him, "not bad for a Canadian." Mr. Jennings whispered back his secret: He had just passed a test earning him dual citizenship in the U.S.

Mr. Jennings is survived by his wife, Kayce Freed, and his two children, Elizabeth, 25, and Christopher, 23.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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