Anchor served on Reporters Committee board for 20 years
From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.
By Amanda Groover and Jennifer Myers
Peter Jennings was known to most Americans as the articulate and soothing face of the evening news; a reliable reporter millions turned to for coverage of triumphs and crises for more than 40 years. But beyond the chronicling of day-to-day events, Jennings was a steadfast supporter of the First Amendment, serving on the steering committee of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press since 1985.
Jennings, an ABC News anchor who had been with the network for more than 40 years, died Aug. 7 after a four-month battle with lung cancer. He was 67.
The Canadian-born Jennings understood the importance of the First Amendment, possibly due to his breadth of experience in less-democratic nations.
“Peter was passionate about the place of a free press in America,” said Tom Brokaw, a former NBC anchor and colleague. “I think his experience in the Middle East, working in countries where the press was controlled or severely oppressed, heightened his appreciation of the First Amendment.
“He often referred to the subject in public appearances, emphasizing the importance of an unfettered press able to, as he put it, ‘pick up a coin and always examine both sides,'” Brokaw said.
First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams appreciated Jennings’ willingness to speak out on the subject.
“Peter Jennings was always available not only to talk about the First Amendment but to show up and be heard in its defense,” he said. “He was one of the most articulate defenders of a broad reading of the First Amendment so as to assure that broadcasters as well as other journalists remained free to cover matters of foreign policy as well as popular culture.
“One of Jennings’ greatest skills was his ability to combine in his broadcasts a focus on the day to day trivia that besets us and those matters that are really important.”
Abrams pointed to Jennings’ coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks as an example of his ability to balance a current crisis with its long term implications. Jennings was on the air for 60 hours that week, in what The Washington Post described as a “Herculean job of coverage.” He invited Abrams on his broadcast three days after the attacks to discuss the new potential for government-imposed press regulation.
“The very notion that on 9/11 itself, Peter would be focusing on the longer-range consequences of the attack and seeking from the start to persuade the people to be alert to any potential loss of their liberties speaks very well for him,”Abrams said.
Such subtle conviction was not simply reserved for the air. Abrams remembers a private dinner party for Dan Rather where Jennings stressed the importance of a free press.
“He was especially eloquent that evening, talking . . . about what broadcasters do at their best and how important, how central it is for those people in power to use their power to defend the First Amendment,” Abrams said. “I think he did that on a regular basis.”
Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish also remembered Jennings’ commitment and dedication.
“Peter was an enthusiastic supporter of the Reporters Committee as a steering committee member for 20 years,” she said. “He was a delight to work with, and was generous with his time and financial support whenever we called upon him.”