Rest in Peace, Peter Jennings
I can't remember when I started watching World New Tonight With Peter Jennings, but it was before I started going to school, and before I could read long words and small print properly. Indira Gandhi's assasination, the Oliver North hearings, the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, the conventions of '88, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the invasion of Kuwait, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the assasination of Rajiv Gandhi, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the election of Bill Clinton--these were all shaped for me by the calm and measured tones of Peter Jennings. He came to LA when it rained, breaking the drought of my childhood. Every New Years Eve I religiously watched the end of the year salute. Even after I cut my teeth on the LA Times as a child and even, much later, after I got my subscription to The New Yorker, Jennings was my guide for the events of the day. Through several moves, two states, and three or four houses, there was an unbroken family ritual. Come home, take a shower, watch Jennings. When high school started, I was given the choice of one hour of tv an evening. Resignedly I said goodbye to my beloved Star Trek--giving up Jennings wasn't even an option.
Sticking with him was almost an impossibility in college though; with an hour long commute on the train and lab classes that went till 5, my habit was broken. I was more likely to get my news on the drive to school via NPR. Later I turned to Abcnews.go.com, and for years that and the New York Times were my internet news sources. Eventually Akamai and then Google opened up the wide world of hourly news. Sadly, by the time I heard that Jennings was ill and wouldn't be sitting in the anchor desk regularly, I had long ago stopped regularly watching news on TV. In a lot of ways, I felt I had outgrown it. Broadcast segments really didn't do it for me, and the instantaneity and sense of being there had largely been superceded by blogs and wire services. More than anything it was the lack of routine--I had just lost the habit of getting home in time for his broadcast.
I made one major exception--the New Years eve broadcast of 1999 turning into 2000. I had stayed up late watching the sad resolution of the Indian Air hijacking--a dark foreshadowing of events to come
--and barely caught the dawning of the New Year in India. I didn't miss any after that. I stayed glued to the TV, as much fascinated with Jennings' stamina and familiar wit--I have a vague memory of Bill Blakemore doing card tricks on TV to keep them all awake?!--as with the perfect, beautiful hourly celebrations of the new millennium sweeping from capital to capital, from Moscow to Paris to Rome to London and Paris to Newfoundland to New York to me. Despite the foreshadowing and some recent sad personal events, that day seems to epitomize everything hopeful and worldly and eager about our era. It was only right and proper that Peter Jennings would chaperone it.
When 9/11 happened I didn't have proper TV signal, and I gnashed my teeth for a Jennings fix, but it just wasn't possible, and the habit seemed broken. Sadly, now it has to be.
My understanding of the building of the atomic bomb, and the physicists who made it, was greatly influenced by a documentary he made, and that directly contributed to my desire to major in physics. My understanding of the situation regarding Israel and Palestine was also influenced by his work. He consistently reported on India when no one else really cared. I don't really know what to say, except he's the single most present public figure in my life so far, even counting the relative recent absence. I really can't imagine my childhood and youth without him. When considering the formation of any of my thinking on politics, my sense of the globe, my sense of what's current--at the beginning of all of it is some World News Tonight segment, some introduction by Peter Jennings. I'm just so sad that I was in New York, with people he knew, and I never got to meet him.
I'll close with one of my favorite Jennings clips ever. You know the joke about Anchors not wearing any pants? Well, at some point I was flipping channels and I caught part of an ABC anniversary special. I forget what the context was but there was a great clip of a young Peter Jennings reporting from Egypt. He was standing on a balcony overlooking the city, delivering some fairly serious commentary but in his shirtsleeves. Then he signs out. The tape keeps rolling; he clearly thinks he's off camera and he's almost certainly off the air. He furrows his brow and says to the Cameraman, "Uh, ---, what are you doing?" The camera tilts down. No pants.
Rest in Peace Mr. Jennings. Thank you for everything.