ABC's Peter Jennings Shares His Views on the State of TV News
By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
When veteran newsman Peter Jennings was asked to take over as ABC News' top news anchor 16 years ago, he was not so eager to accept the job.
"I was perfectly happy as a foreign correspondent," said Jennings, in an Oct. 4 conversation with Journalism School Dean Orville Schell at Zellerbach Hall. "My wife made me do it."
Jennings was tapped for the anchor position after the death of Frank Reynolds in 1983. His wife convinced him that if he turned down the offer, he may never get asked again. With this bit of wisdom, and the lure of a huge salary increase, Jennings took the job.
"The sad thing about being an anchor is I no longer get to be a reporter," Jennings said of his globe trotting days. "If it was raining in London, I went to Africa looking for a story."
But being anchor and senior editor of ABC's World News Tonight has its advantages, said Jennings.
"I have the power to put things on the agenda," he said. "During this trip to Berkeley, I've already come up with six or seven stories ideas to take back."
Jennings didn't always wield such power.
At age nine, he had his own radio show, "Peter's Program," for which he earned $25.
"My dad took that money away," said Jennings, whose father was an anchorman in their native Canada. "He believed that broadcasting was a public service and this was my first lesson."
Jennings' visit was part of the Herb Caen/San Francisco Chronicle lecture series, which brings national leaders to Berkeley to discuss the state of communications in America.
When pressed by Schell to critique the industry that has made him a star, Jennings said he feels journalists are doing a good job.
"The evening news is much better than before," said Jennings. "Access to technology, specialists and scholars has improved the information we are able give audiences."
Jennings did, however, express his concerns about the purchase of media outlets by outside corporations, putting the power of information in fewer and fewer hands. His own employer, ABC, was recently bought by Disney.
"If Disney has done something bad, I try to report it," said Jennings. "It's a good relationship to have."
He is also put off by the industry's use of "gotcha" journalism, where news organizations dig for dirt on politicians and other well-known people and expose them in their publications.
"As a consumer, I sometimes hate what I see," he said. "That kind of journalism deserves contempt."
With the competition of cable, the internet and other cutting-edge forms of communication, many have predicted the demise of network news, but Jennings said he thinks the format has a future.
"As long as the evening news delivers good content, there will always be a place for it," he said. "However, there is a drive in the networks to move it around on the schedule to make it more accessible."