Peter Jennings, a mentor who led by example: “I never stopped marveling at the things he taught me”

Peter Jennings.jpgYesterday’s New York Observer ran an incredibly poignant and thoughtful piece by Rebecca Dana paying tribute to Peter Jennings as a New Yorker. Dana pieces together significant moments from Jenning’s broadcasts (such as his September 11th coverage including a still-harrowing transcript of Jennings reporting as the towers actually fell) and celebrates his love of and commitment to this city.

Canadians, though, miss how his eye would turn up toward his homeland — an appraising eye, as Simon Houpt of The Globe & Mail points out. Houpt, the Globe’s New York-based arts correspondent, earlier this week wrote of Jennings’ tendency to recruit and mentor talent, calling him “an enthusiastic talent scout for Canadian television reporters seeking the challenge of working in the wilder world of American journalism.”

Earlier this week I quoted former ABC reporter Kevin Newman to whom Jennings’ bequeathed an American flag with instructions to prize it and always treat the U.S. with affection and respect; Houpt cites additional Jennings proteg&#233s including ABC foreign correspondent Richard Gizbert; CBS London correspondent Sheila MacVicar, formerly one of Jenning’s foreign correspondents for “World News Tonight”; ABC Miami correspondent Jeffrey Kofman; and former ABC London correspondent Gillian Findlay. Jennings was their elder statesman, said Findlay, watching their backs and giving his ear: “He was the one I would go to if I had a problem or I felt something wasn’t being approached correctly or I wanted to run something by. He was the mentor for all of us.”

“You guys produce first-rate journalists, and what Peter was able to bring to us was first-hand knowledge of those journalists,” ABC News senior VP of worldwide newsgathering Paul Slavin told Houpt (who notes that recent hire Wilf Dinnick, new ABC Jerusalem correspondent, was run by Jennings first).

Houpt, who told me he’d met Jennings a few times over the years, called him “a very gracious fellow who always seemed to have time for other Canadian media” (something that you can’t necessarily take for granted). But more important, Jennings also seemed to have time for young journalists, genuinely interested in encouraging great journalism by encouraging (potentially great) young journalists. Per mb editor Elizabeth Spiers:

“[H]e kept talking well after the PR people were giving me dirty looks, my tape recorder had been turned off and he’d been reminded multiple times that “Mr. Cronkite” was waiting to speak to him. He genuinely wanted to help.”

Kofman admits to being the grateful recipient of that help, though sometimes exasperating:

“Nothing quite matches those late night phone calls in Baghdad as mortars are exploding within earshot and Peter is on the other end of the line demanding a rewrite of a sentence that doesn’t sit with him. But we always knew that Peter never asked us to do anything he himself wouldn’t do, or hadn’t already done.”

In return, Kofman would talk Canada and canoe-tripping with Jennings, in between addressing U.S. and world politics – as usual, exemplifying what it means to be a Canadian living here and loving and respecting both countries. Best of both worlds.

Kofman shares more memories after the jump, which make a nice counterpart for Houpt’s article, below.

Jennings leaves a Canadian legacy [Globe & Mail]


Jeffrey Kofman, ABC News: “There aren’t many role models left these days, Peter was one of mine.”

“Peter Jennings was the real thing. If he seemed oh-so-calm, always polished and staggeringly well-informed informed it is because he was. He would cringe at that last sentence, he hated overwrought over-writing. What he prized was accuracy, fairness, clarity and a connection with viewers. It was inspiring to have to live by his standards, although any reporter or producer who came into contact with Peter will also admit that at times it was exasperating. Nothing quite matches those late night phone calls in Baghdad as mortars are exploding within earshot and Peter is on the other end of the line demanding a rewrite of a sentence that doesn’t sit with him. But we always knew that Peter never asked us to do anything he himself wouldn’t do, or hadn’t already done.

Virtually no story made it onto World News Tonight without Peter vetting it. A conversation over a script with a desk editor in New York could be interrupted at any time. “Jeffrey?” I’d hear on the other end of the line, that deep voice needing no introduction. He’d have one comment or question. You hoped you knew the answer. Then he’d move on to the next reporter in some other corner of the country or the world. I never stopped marveling at the things he taught me.

In a television world that too often focuses on celebrity and tabloid
tales and seems to prize the anchorman who yells the loudest, Peter
refused to play along. He fought aggressively to keep international news on his newscast. He believed Americans needed to know what is going on in the world beyond their borders. Were his values old-fashioned? No. They reflected a deep commitment to his craft and deep respect for his viewers. That is why those of us who worked with him will miss him so much. There aren’t many role models left these days, Peter was one of mine.

As others have noted, he was the only network anchor who came to this country as an immigrant. It is probably true that Peter’s world view as informed by his Canadian origins. He loved to talk American and world politics, but he never lost interest in Canada. On my visits to ABC headquarters in New York, Peter and I would sometimes sit in his office — its walls adorned with Canadian Eskimo Art — and talk Canada. We shared a passion for wilderness canoe trips, he pointed me enthusiastically to an ingenious new paddle design. He regretted that the anchoring commitments of the post-9/11 world made it impossible for him to disappear into the wilds of the north, but he reveled in the memories of past trips. I was on vacation last week, canoeing in Northern Canada. I had hoped to send Peter a photo of the spectacular wilderness I saw. Sadly, I returned from my trip on Sunday, just hours before he died.”