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Peter Jennings: The End of an Era

August 10, 2005
By Joseph Hughes

The media world is coming to grips with the recent news that longtime ABC News anchor Peter Jennings has died of lung cancer at 67. With his passing, we mark not only the loss of one of the giants of field, but also the end of an era in journalism.

For much of my life, Jennings was how I got the news. My family lived in the country until I was in sixth grade, so for many years the three networks were our only outlets. Plus, cable news hadn't yet reached the level of saturation it has today so, naturally, more people flocked to the Big Three.

We were always an ABC News family. I remember Jennings' wonderful voice, smooth delivery and steady demeanor guiding us through elections, revolutions, terrorist attacks and other passages of time. Jennings had an affinity for children; he always strived to help them come to grips with challenging events like the wars in Iraq and the September 11 attacks.

Unlike today's anchors, Jennings looked and acted like a journalist. What's more, he was a journalist. Known for his shrewdness as an editor, Jennings rarely let a story escape his eye prior to broadcast. He asked good questions, expected better answers and helped make sense of an often-confusing world. His was a calming presence.

He helped give meaning to the day's events and was a pillar when we sought clarity in a crisis. He had a gravity that let you know that what he was discussing meant something. I can say unequivocally that - aside from my parents - Jennings was the sole reason I chose a career in journalism.

Said former ABC News colleague Charles Gibson, "Peter could transform confusion into clarity and make exercise appear effortless. He set standards for us, and he never stopped raising them as he helped audiences understand the major events of our time." Echoing Gibson's sentiments was fellow anchor Tom Brokaw, who said, "Peter, of the three of us, was our prince. He seemed so timeless. He had such elegance and style."

Perhaps my favorite Jennings anecdote came from ABC News correspondent Dan Harris. "When I went into a war zone for the first time, which was Afghanistan, he called my parents to let them know I was OK," a tearful Harris said. "He's the anchor of a broadcast that 10 million people watch a night. He's got plenty of things to do. And he took time, before the show, to call my parents and say, 'Your kid's alright.'"

In today's media world of celebrity breakups, kidnapped Caucasians, and shark attacks, Jennings' passing - coupled with the departures of NBC's Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather - signifies the end of an era. Network news, already on the ropes, may never be the same. People no longer have to wait until 6:30 p.m. to get the news; instead, there's an unending news cycle perpetuated by cable news and the Internet.

While this trend, on paper, is a good thing, it often fails in practice. In an environment where breaking news and flashy stories prevail, we're losing the perspective that network news offered. We're adrift without an anchor, so to speak. The sheer amount of news with which we're confronted can be staggering. What we're not being confronted with these days is analysis.

By analysis, I'm referring more to sound, investigative reporting than what passes for the art these days - the commentaries, the punditry, the theorizing that leads most people to accept someone's cloaked agenda as fact. This, of course, is another unintended consequence of the 24-hour news cycle - and one that network news' tight broadcasts helped keep at bay.

We've truly been empowered to be our own journalists, our own news seekers. This is a good thing, to be sure, but we're also losing touch with the long-range view the news used to provide. We're being handed names, dates and sound bites without any background and being asked to provide our own narrative. Jennings and his colleagues helped provide that narrative.

As time passes, anchors like Jennings are being replaced with people like Bill Hemmer, hairpieces with no more knowledge of the news than the viewer at home. Level-headed journalists have given way to the Nancy Graces of the world. Pundits and former politicos are replacing professionals. A world where Bob Novak is given more airtime than Bill Moyers is a sad one, indeed.

While we mourn the loss of Jennings, we must also mourn the loss of something larger, of the time when news was news, entertainment was entertainment and never the twain shall meet. The news paradigm has forever shifted, though not necessarily for the better. Until the whos, whats, wheres, whens and whys replace the bottom line in the newsroom, I'm not convinced that we're headed in a better direction.

Goodbye, Peter. You'll be missed.

Joseph Hughes is a graphic designer and writer by day and a liberal blogger by night. Read stories like this and many more at his blog, Hughes for America.

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