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The Peter Principle

Saying goodbye to a TV icon

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I am not given to hero worship of TV anchormen. When I was a kid I thought Cronkite was God, but so did the rest of America. When I grew up, I got into the local-TV news business as a reporter and later an anchor. I recognized the obvious: Sometimes the job mattered, but often it was much ado about nothing. And the people you worked with were sometimes a bunch of blow-dried hype artists.

 

So I was prepared to be underwhelmed when I met Peter Jennings, who died of lung cancer this month, last October in Pittsburgh. Mind you, the network news folks had always adhered to a much higher standard than we local boob-tubers, but they were not immune to the pretentious sense of self-importance that too often permeates TV news broadcasts at every level.

 

Another reason I was skeptical about Jennings is that he was Bond, James Bond. The metaphor for the 007 of anchormen is overused, but it also seemed right on the mark. Jennings was suave and debonair, or, as we say on the North Side, swave and de-boner. (The guy was married four times; I think it was mostly de-boner.)

 

I met Jennings when I served on a panel focusing on Western Pennsylvania's role in the 2004 presidential election -- and on the hometown connection of the hottest chick who could have been first lady, Teresa Heinz-Kerry.

 

With me on the panel were Post-Gazette columnists Ruth Ann Dailey and Tony Norman, along with radio talk host Jerry Bowyer and Channel 4 news director Bob Longo.

 

So Jennings gets all of the panelists in the room. There are some hangers-on. He orders them out immediately in a calm-but-forceful swave and de-boner fashion. When James Bond says hit the road, you start packin'.

 

Time is short and Jennings starts debriefing all of us about our background. He asks quick questions and gets quick answers. You see his brain clicking behind those steely anchorman eyes and he instantly sizes us up as panelists. Who might be long-winded? Who's a righty, who's a lefty, who's a gadfly, who might be able to provide a comedic moment if this the program gets dull?

 

In the process he charms the pants off everyone in the room. There we all were with no pants. Or maybe that was the dream I had that night. But Mr. Pretentious suddenly seemed the most unpretentious, caring, thoughtful, really cool guy I had ever met in the news business.

 

I had put down on my bio that I had been an anchorman and reporter at several TV stations. "Don't you just want to say 'reporter'?" asked Peter. "Yeah, I guess that sounds a lot better," I mumbled. Jennings famously thought anchoring wasn't a real job, and that you had to try to be a reporter who happened to sit behind a desk.

 

The funny thing is, if you read all the fawning obits about Jennings, he was anything but pretentious. In fact he apparently had a massive inferiority complex. First elevated to the ABC anchor desk in 1964 at age 26, the young Canadian wasn't ready, and embarrassed himself up against Huntley/Brinkley and God himself, Cronkite. To his credit, he recognized it, quit after a little less than three years and spent the next several years traveling the globe and becoming a superb foreign correspondent. Here was a high school dropout educating himself by hopscotching around the world and immersing himself in its problems.

 

I had seen Jennings in person one other time. In 1984 I was in Des Moines, Iowa, covering the Iowa caucuses. There was Peter, along with one of his idols who had since moved to ABC, David Brinkley. They were pecking away at typewriters (back in the pre-computer Stone Age) and I was told they were too busy to talk to the kid from local TV.

 

I told Jennings this story. He said that Brinkley completely carried him that election night during the endless mostly ad-lib coverage, and he spent the rest of his career trying to catch up, and on his final election with Brinkley in 2000, when Brinkley was deteriorating, Jennings carried him.

 

Unlike 007's martinis, Peter was stirred, but not shaken, during many a national crisis on the anchor desk. He was Jennings ... Peter Jennings.

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