Peter Jennings - ABC television anchorman

The end of an era! That’s how most news stories here summed up the death of ABC anchor Peter Jennings. Basically it’s true.

The
day of the TV anchormen on the evening news shows is virtually over –
no matter who the ABC network chooses to replace Jennings.

In less than a year the three major American TV networks have lost their big stars.

The
CBS network lost its number one anchor, Dan Rather, in the scandal that
followed his discredited story about the non-military service of
President Bush. That was just after Tom Brokaw retired from his
position at NBC.

For decades, the three newsmen had brought the
nightly news to millions of Americans. They were, some said, the
electronic voice of God.

They, in turn, were treated as journalistic royalty. Doors opened for them that were closed to most run-of-the-mill journalists.

They were granted interviews with politicians and even dictators who normally wouldn’t deign to speak to a journalist.

In
turn, all three anchors helped in their own way to push their employers
to run many serious in-depth stories and cover world events that might
otherwise have been ignored.

What will happen now? It’s feared that the quality of late night TV news in the US will deteriorate.

In
a business which is tending more and more towards the trivial, where
tabloid journalism is taking over, there is a doubt whether the
successors to Jennings, Rather and Brokaw will have the clout to insist
on serious journalism, at least on TV.

Even before they left the
scene there was a lament for the days of Walter Cronkite, the veteran
TV newsman who even presidents feared.

Similarly, in the days of radio news, it was the voice of Ed Murrow which carried the big weight.

But
Jennings, son of a Canadian journalist, was particularly liked because
– although he never finished high-school – he was sophisticated,
urbane, erudite and worldly.

Just four months ago, on-air, in a
croaky voice, he revealed his medical problem – a serious case of lung
cancer brought on, he admitted, by years of smoking.

His network could not bring itself to prepare his obit in advance. It was, in fact, caught short when he died at the age of 67.

“We did not want to admit he was dying,” said a network spokesman.

“And we didn’t want to let his family think we had lost hope.”

There
was, as a result, a scramble to put a major tribute on the air, in
which colleagues from all over the world, by remote link-ups, hastened
to add their voices and their reminiscences. Work went on through the
night to put together the two-hour tribute.

One of the most telling scenes was when the studio camera focused – and lingered – on Jennings’ now empty anchorman’s chair.

Jeffrey Blyth in New York

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