Monday, August 08, 2005

Jennings, 67

Peter Jennings: A lifetime of being curious

Editor's Note: Michael Schulder, now an Atlanta-based senior executive producer for CNN, worked as a writer for "ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" from 1991 to 1996.
If the anchorman in "Broadcast News" had been based on Peter Jennings, it would have been a very different movie. In the movie, the producers in the control room talk to the anchor in his earpiece, telling him what to say on the air. In the Peter Jennings version, it's the producers who would have worn the earpieces to get directions from the anchor. In the movie, it's the anchor who sweats. In the Peter Jennings version, the producers sweat. That was ABC's "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings.

During my first week on the job as a writer for Peter Jennings, I did not have to write a single word. It was January 1991, the week American bombs began falling on Baghdad in the first Gulf War. The news was breaking so quickly in those first days of the war it was virtually all ad-lib all the time for Peter, who had already been in the anchor chair for nearly a decade.

I thought: "What have I gotten myself into"? This man can ad-lib better than I can write. Peter was on the air live, hour after hour, without a script, instantly synthesizing and explaining for the audience what we knew, and, just as importantly, what we did not know. Students of journalism should study those tapes.

Of course, most of Peter's programs were scripted. The three of us who wrote for him would submit our copy. And then we would wait -- to see how our writing would be "Peterized." Peterization could take many forms. Sometimes it was a stylistic tweak to make the writing sound more like -- well -- Peter. Other times Peter would pose a question that led the writer closer to the heart of the story. Other times he'd come over, with his left foot on the floor and right foot on your desk, and do a stream of consciousness rewrite.

Then there were those times Peter would love your first draft so much he'd look at you and ask, with a twinkle in his eye: "Did you write that yourself?" Yes, he loved to rib the people he worked with. But his ribs could take it, too.

For example, Peter had a reputation for being somewhat frugal. When I heard he had a personal trainer who was having him run up and down the steps of his apartment building while so many others were using expensive Stairmasters, I joked that if there's one thing Peter can't resist, it's free stairs. When I told that joke in front of a large gathering, Peter doubled over with laughter. He really did have a sense of humor about himself.

What made it particularly difficult to work for Peter was that he might love a script in the morning and leave it at night. On more than a few occasions, he would decide that a script he approved of at 10 a.m. was lacking in style or substance at 6 p.m. We would have just minutes to rewrite it prior to air time. He wasn't looking to make our lives difficult. He was looking for ways to make the program better. As long as there was time left, there was time to improve.

When Peter Jennings interviewed me for the writer's job, he told me: "On this program we never talk down to the audience." He truly loved to communicate what he learned and believed the audience wanted to share in that learning experience. And we all believed that helped account for the many years his program was No. 1 in the ratings.

Many of us pop psychologists who worked for Peter traced his obsession with learning new things to his teenage years. We thought it was Peter's way of compensating for never having graduated from high school.

He pushed himself to always learn new things. He pushed his staff to teach him new things. And he was determined to communicate all the exciting new things he learned to his viewers. A lifetime of satisfying his curiosity worked to the benefit of his audience.

There was one question he asked me in my job interview that said a lot about how he viewed the learning process. What do you like to do outside of work? He wasn't trying to figure out whether I'd be a fun guy to have a beer with. He wanted to know that I had a life outside work -- that I had experiences that I could bring to the table to make my writing and observations richer. This emphasis on life experience is what gave Peter such an edge in his anchoring. Time and time again he would rewrite a story incorporating some anecdote from his years of reporting from all over the world. There was no substitute for Peter's experience.

On a personal level, Peter was warm and engaging. No matter what your station in life, if Peter Jennings met you he'd have questions for you. It was clear he felt he had something to learn from virtually everyone he met. And his viewers knew they had something to learn from Peter.

Reactions to the death of Jennings.

Barbara Walters, ABC colleague: "No one could ad lib like Peter. ... You would think that it was all scripted, he was so poetic, but it wasn't."

Diane Sawyer, ABC colleague: "He really did make us raise our sights."

Dan Rather, former CBS anchor: "Make no mistake, inside that tall, handsome, elegant and eloquent exterior, inside that, beat the heart of a fierce but principled competitor."

Tom Brokaw, former NBC anchor: "We were not just competitors and colleagues, we were friends. We had a lot of opportunities to reflect on this in the last year. It was a competitive brotherhood."

David Westin, ABC president: Kayce (Jennings' wife) told me earlier this evening that 'Peter died with his family around him, without pain and in peace. He knew he'd lived a good life."'

Ted Koppel, ABC colleague: "He was a student for the rest of his life, even though he had dropped out (of school) so early -- not `even,' because he had dropped out so early. I think if there was one message he would like to leave with young people today it is, 'Don't do what I did."'

Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico: "He always had the courage to ask the tough questions and demand answers. He set a high standard for TV journalists and his influence will be felt for generations to come."