Monday, August 08, 2005

The passing of a good man

Death is something I've never dealt with well.

Whether it's the passing of my pet dog, my grandmother, or someone I've never met, death does not become me.

Of course, some losses are greater than others. Some wounds are deeper. Death of a loved one is harsh because so often, it feels like the death of a part of yourself.

It's understandable to lament the death of a family member - even if it is "their time to go." But how often do we get distraught at the death of a stranger?

Maybe stranger isn't the best word. Cause it's someone you know. You really know them. Never met them. Never even talked to them, but deep down in your soul, you know them. And they're a permanent part of you.

To many a journalist, such was Peter Jennings.

I grew up with Jennings. I saw him every day. More often than either of my parents and most of my friends. Every night at 6 - after People's Court ... or whatever lame show dad had us watching between the local news and ABC World News Tonight.

Jennings would sign on, and calmly bring the world around us into our living rooms. I heard him say the words "Israel" and "Palestine" more than I heard my father say, "honey, what's for dinner." And more often than not, Jennings' news would tell you that the world was going to hell in a handbasket - falling apart around you. But his delivery. His conviction. It made it all seem okay.

According to ABC, Jennings joined the news team in 1964, serving as the anchor of "Peter Jennings with the News" from 1965 to 1967. He established the first American television news bureau in the Arab world in 1968, and he helped put ABC News on the map in 1972 with his coverage of the Summer Olympics in Munich, when Arab terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage.
In 1975, Jennings moved to Washington to become the news anchor of ABC's morning program "A.M. America". After a short stint in the mornings, Jennings returned overseas to Rome where he stayed before moving to London to become ABC's Chief Foreign Correspondent. In 1978 he was named the foreign desk anchor for "World News Tonight." Jennings was named anchor and senior editor of "World News Tonight" in 1983.

During his career, Jennings had reported from every major world capital and war zone, and from all 50 U.S. states, according to the network.

He has been honored with almost every major award given to television journalists. And I would say he deserved each and every one.

And I'm hardly alone. Jennings work is revered almost unanimously in journalism.

Fox News commentator and talk show host Bill O'Reilly gushed during a segment of his radio show Monday about when he worked with Jennings at ABC. O'Reilly, who has often been critical of television news, had an obvious soft spot for Jennings.

As did Mike Hudson, editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter.

"I have been watching him since I was a kid," Hudson said Monday afternoon.

"I always felt he was much more natural ... than Rather or Brokaw or any of his competitors over the years."

"I was truly sad," Hudson said, of hearing of Jennings' death. "I always felt an affinity with him."

And that was one of Jennings' qualities that made us love him. He was natural. Real, if you will.

And his work ethic was unparalleled.

On December 31, 1999, Jennings anchored live coverage of the Millenium Eve. He was on air for 25 consecutive hours.

September 11, 2001, Jennings kicked it into overdrive again, working more than 60 hours in the days following the terrorists attacks in New York and Washington. Undoubtably scared himself, Jennings allayed his own fears in order to put the country's to rest. For his work, TV Guide called him "the center of gravity."

And yet, he was no propagandist. In 2003, he told Jeff Alan, "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. I don't subscribe to that at all. I subscribe to leaving people with essentially — sorry it's a cliche — a rough draft of history. Some days it's reassuring, some days it's absolutely destructive."

Tim Marren, editor of the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal explained the connection to Jennings: "You form a bond with these guys cause you're so used to seeing them at major (emotional) points."

Marren, 23, said he, too grew up with Jennings, as well as Tom Brokaw. The third member of the "big three," Dan Rather, was mainly absent from Marren's TV screen.

Even though Marren works in print media, he said TV journalism plays a big role in forming the foundation of a print reporter's life.

"You don't even realize what kind of impact it has until you get in the business," he explained.

Jennings was a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, having become an American citizen on May 30, 2003. He was said to have been very proud of scoring 100 of 100 on the U.S. citizenship exam.

On a day when I reported that one in five people think the three branches of government are Democrat, Reublican and Independent, that 100 percent looks pretty darn good. Better than many other reporters could do, no doubt.

To be honest, it was Wolf Blitzer and the glamour of the TV coverage of Operation Desert Storm that really got me revved up about journalism. Wolf and CNN pushed me into this field. But I never would have been heading in that direction if it weren't for Peter Jennings.

And so as Jennings leaves us, a little bit of me leaves with him. And the rest of me wishes his soul eternal rest. God knows he didn't rest while he was with us.