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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2005, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
The end of an era in US news
By Charles Eisendrath
Director of the Michigan Journalism fellowship

Flowers left on a poster of Jennings in New York City
Jennings defined an era in news for Americans

To Americans, Peter Jennings was the elegant one.

The network television anchor was always "buttoned up," every hair in place, jacket immaculate, each weekday evening - no matter what the drama of the story he was presenting on ABC's "World News Tonight."

Even the attacks of 11 September 2001, which he presented for 60 hours that day and the horrific ones that followed, failed to overheat his on-air cool.

The single exception came last April, when he reported the lung cancer that was to kill him on Sunday at 67.

For many viewers, the fear in his eyes and the fog in his voice came as much of a shock as the news itself.

International background

Jennings was also the international one, with a special understanding of Europe, "old" and "new".

I remember Mr Jennings as a very photogenic presence on the TV screen
Jodi, Brussels, Belgium

His broadcast routinely carried more foreign news than the competition and was among the reasons that ABC under his guidance came from dead last among the three broadcast networks to either top slot or a close second, where it stood when he took himself off the air.

Sensitivity to events abroad came as second nature.

He himself was technically a "foreigner" until two years ago, when he added US citizenship to his native Canadian, explaining that it resulted from personal considerations, not politics.

Unlike his competitors, Jennings also had extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, including long stints living abroad.

Defining an era

Most Americans get their news from television and Jennings' career as anchor neatly and precisely defined an era.

Peter did what he could to halt the downward spiral of television news in America

It began in the 1980s when Jennings at ABC, Tom Brokaw at NBC and Dan Rather at CBS took over the "face" positions in the news from a previous generation more avuncular than any of them ever became.

None achieved the "most trusted man in America" standing in the polls that had rested with CBS's Walter Cronkite.

Brokaw retired in the lead position last December. Rather resigned as anchor a few months later after reporting documents relating to President George W Bush's military record that turned out to be false.

It fell to them to react to the challenges of 24-hour news.

None proved able to stem a steady drain of viewers to cable news including CNN, CNBC and Fox, and a growing array of internet news sites and blogs.

However, the three broadcast networks attract an average 25 million Americans every weekday evening and combined advertising revenues of $300 million a year.

Earning power

Ironically, falling audiences coincided with decisions at all three networks to strip their news gathering abilities. They closed most of their foreign bureaus, many in US cities, and cut back dramatically in Washington.

Peter Jennings
Peter Jennings was sensitive to foreign news

The trade-off often frustrated Jennings and his colleagues but also enriched them. He earned an estimated $10 million annually.

For context, that would translate into about 30 news producers. They are the people who do most of the gathering of the raw news product, which is then presented by correspondents and anchors.

It is also more than 15 times the salary of the executive editor of the New York Times.

Jennings was also erudite. He wrote two popular books in recent years with co-author Todd Brewster.

His earning power and erudition was a special achievement, given his background.

Not only was he born and brought up outside the country, he finished neither high school nor college.

In a US increasingly pre-occupied with "credentialing", the old, hard-knocks school of journalism is a rarity.

His gave the credit to his father, Charles Jennings, a leading figure with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation.

In The Century, the first of his books, published in 1998, Jennings remembered his father telling him to describe the sky.

He was then instructed to go outside and describe each piece of sky, to sharpen his perceptions.

Charles Eisendrath, a former Time Magazine correspondent in Washington, London, Paris and Buenos Aires, directs the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for journalists at the University of Michigan.

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