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A reliable voice through changing times

Peter Jennings was a benchmark as the role of news anchors shifted
/ Source: contributor

The last trustworthy American was born a Canadian.

Peter Jennings became an American citizen in 2003. But before that, he was an honorary American, one of the small handful of people we went to for the truth. And he came through. He never lied to us. He always gave it to us straight.

In the early years of television news, the beacon was Edward R. Murrow, whose integrity was unimpeachable. Later it was John Cameron Swayze, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, John Chancellor, and of course, Walter Cronkite.

While all were honorable men, Cronkite is widely recognized as the standard. He was known as “the most trusted man in America.” He broke the news to us about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He articulated the brutal reality of the Vietnam War. He was the avuncular presence that symbolized network news and comforted millions.

While Cronkite continued to anchor the CBS Evening News until 1981, it was Watergate that altered the perception of the media in general, and network news in particular. The scandal that erupted from the reporting of Washington Post staffers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ushered in an era of cynicism which still exists today. But people didn’t just question the caretakers of their government, they also had issues with the messengers.

While American citizens have taken sides for years, this was an era in which polarization was being televised before a vast audience. When then-White House correspondent Dan Rather got into his infamous exchange with President Richard Nixon — Nixon to Rather: “Are you running for something?” Rather to Nixon: “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?” — it divided viewers between those who wanted Rather to pursue Nixon vigorously, and those who insisted he show more respect.

Different timesOn Feb. 1, 1965, Peter Jennings was selected to anchor ABC’s network news broadcast. He was 26 years old.

It didn’t work out at first. Three years later, he got the hook. But he went on to years of acclaim as a correspondent. One of his most memorable dispatches was a harrowing account of the Israeli hostage-taking by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Eventually, Jennings worked his way back to the anchor desk. He became one of three anchors on “World News Tonight.” On September 5, 1983, Jennings was named sole anchor.

A lot has happened between then and now. During the intervening years, Jennings competed with two distinguished colleagues, Rather and NBC’s Tom Brokaw. All three had paid their dues, working their way up as reporters.

But over the past 22 years or so, from the time Jennings took root in the anchor seat until his passing Sunday of lung cancer at age 67, trust in the news media has eroded. It has less to do with the training and attitudes and motives of reporters and more to do with special interests. The nation is so divided, with so many disparate groups vying for their piece of the pie that whenever a member of the news media reports on something that reflects badly on their point of view, he or she is immediately condemned as biased.

And when a reporter makes a mistake, he might as well polish his résumé, because he will be hounded and vilified until he pays for it with his job.

But Peter Jennings escaped all that. For the most part, he got a free pass. The hope here is that he was given special treatment because he was a special journalist. Even the most acidic advocate of a cause had to admit that Jennings was fair and honest, because the evidence was incontrovertible.

After his first ouster, Jennings eventually made his return to ABC’s anchor desk in 1978 as part of a triumvirate that had him working in London as the network’s chief foreign correspondent along with Frank Reynolds in Washington and Max Robinson in Chicago.

But he will be remembered as part of another competing troika that included Rather and Brokaw. While historians can probably point to individuals in the business who were arguably more revered and respected, there many not have been three working on opposing networks at the same time who were as celebrated as Jennings and his rivals.

Of the three, Rather probably established himself as the most contentious and colorful. He parried with Nixon and also had a tense moment with George H.W. Bush, when he asked the president about Iran-Contra and Bush responded by asking if Rather would like to be remembered by the incident in which he walked off the set to protest U.S. Open coverage cutting into the news broadcast. Rather retired from the anchor desk in March after a professional low point: a report on “60 Minutes II” that focused on false documents about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

Brokaw was a quiet giant, who softened his hard-hitting style with an amiable presence. But his personality, while pleasing, never overshadowed his exceptional journalistic skills.

When Brokaw retired in December,  Jennings was the only one left of the three. Rather had been the instigator. Brokaw was credited with helping NBC rise to No. 1 in the ratings, and gained further recognition with his World War II tribute, “The Greatest Generation.”

A new era?Jennings made fewer headlines than his broadcast brethren. He did in network news what Spencer Tracy once advised a fellow actor to do: “Find your mark, look into the camera and tell the truth.”

Now media consultants will panic to replace him, like they’ve done in the aftermath of the Rather exit. They’ll look for new ways to present the news. They’ll consult MTV, Comedy Central, even ESPN. They’ll redesign sets, order trendier attire and lead with stories about Paris Hilton.

Spin will be the order of the day. Never mind that folks have less faith in the news media now than ever. The idea is to jazz up the broadcast while softening the edges, not break stories. Network suits are able to do this now because the last trustworthy man in America is no longer with us.

He was our Cronkite, even if people didn’t realize it, or took him for granted. He will be missed, and network news will never be the same.