peterjennings-2011-10-14-at-2-33-45-pmWe called him PJ sometimes, but always in a most respectful way.

I first met Peter Jennings in 1980. I guess you could call it being in the right place at the right time. But as anyone in the rather incestuous world of television news will tell you, so much of the business is exactly that.

The day I walked in to the ABC London bureau for a job interview I got lucky. Jennings’s assistant, a lovely Southern lady named Carobel Daniel, happened to be looking for a fill-in person to operate an unbelievably primitive Telepromptr machine.

Peter Jennings taught me−as he taught countless other journalists−to look at the world with boundless curiosity and to have faith in the craft of journalism, says Peggy Thomson

In those days, with the exception of the old Telepromptr machine, “World News Tonight” was a marvel of technology and innovation. Or at least that was how the show appeared by the time it reached millions of American television viewers every evening. The three-anchor format−Frank Reynolds in Washington, Max Robinson in Chicago and Peter Jennings in London−had never been tried before. But in a desperate effort to beat NBC and CBS in the ratings war, ABC was determined to exploit to the fullest the new satellite techology which made it possible to transmit, sometimes even live, from distant and often previously inaccessible locations.
Even as the lowly Telepromptr person I found myself working elbow-to-elbow with Jennings every evening from 6 to 10 p.m. London time.
The antique Telepromptr machine produced oversize letters on special paper with performated sides. When Jennings went on the air, I would immediately begin feeding the long strip of paper into the recalcitant machine by hand since the automatic feed mechanism always seemed to be permanently broken. The trick was to feed the paper through at a speed that matched as closely as possible the speed at which Jennings spoke.

The words on the paper were projected onto a small screen located directly behind the lens of the studio camera. Until the last possible moment, I would be feverishly correcting typos and making changes as best I could by crossing out words with a marker or by using what seemed like gallons of typewriter correction fluid.  Compared to the ease with which computers can handle the work once done by the Telepromptr machine, what I had to go through every night was so primitive as to be almost laughable. But at that particular moment the age of the computer had not quite arrived.

But even if the early 1980s were not the age of the computer they were still the age of the anchorman. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jennings was well on his way to becoming one of the Big Three, along with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.

The first breaking story I ever worked on with Jennings was the death of the Shah of Iran. It was a Sunday morning in July of 1980. I was working that morning anyway, but the moment I heard the news I raced into the office. Jennings arrived not long afterward and immediately began doing “live shots” whenever satellite time became available. He didn’t need or have time for scripts. It was then that I saw for the first time the man’s incredible stamina in front of the camera as well as his grace under presure.

Jennings knew that I had trained as a journalist and that I wanted to do more than wrestle forever with a temperamental Telepromptr machine. He encouraged me to go into radio and to travel on stories whenever I could. Jennings loved radio and never completely abandoned it for the admittedly more glamorous medium of television.

While working as a radio correspondent for ABC, I often produced Jennings’s daily radio reports. At other times I would fill in for his regular “World New Tonight” scriptwriter, an elegant, old-school journalist named Peter Shaw. But Jennings rarely used the scripts that either I or anyone else produced as anything more than a rough draft. With pencil in hand and a deadline looming, he would quickly transform whatever copy he’d been given before reading it into the camera with his distinctive delivery and ever-so-slight Canadian accent.

I last saw Jennings in the early 1990s, when he invited me to stop by his book-lined office in the ABC News headquarters in New York. By this time I had returned to the United States after twelve years in London. We talked for quite a while about mutual friends and colleagues, and he congratulated me warmly when I tolk him that I had landed a job at CBS.

Peter Jennings taught me that being a journalist meant going out and getting a story, not sitting in a newsroom or even in an anchorman’s chair.

But more than anything else, Peter Jennings taught me−the way he taught countless other journalists−to look at the world with boundless curiosity and to have faith in the craft known as journalism.

Jennings’s death may indeed hasten the long-predicted demise of the networks’ evening news programs. It’s hard to argue that “World News Tonight,” with its laxative and denture cleanser ads, is still on the cutting edge, the way it was when I first met Peter Jennings more than 25 years ago.

And in this new age of “infotainment” and Internet bloggers, those of us who had the privilege of learning from him can only wonder whether the ideals Jennings upheld for so long will make it down to the next generation of journalists−if indeed there is a next generation of journalists.

With his irrepressible optimism, “PJ” would probably tell today’s young reporters to simply go out and get the story. Because that’s what he did−with unparalleled honesty and integrity.

A version of this story originally appeared in the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal on August 10, 2005.

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