Signing Off

Peter Jennings, my first TV crush.

And here’s why:

Jennings never completed high school or college, and began his career as a news reporter at a radio station in Brockville, Ontario. He quickly earned an anchor job at Canadian Television.

Sent south to cover the Democratic national convention in 1964, the handsome, dashing correspondent was noticed by ABC’s news president. Jennings was offered a reporting job and left Canada for New York.

As the third-place news network, ABC figured its only chance was to go after young viewers. Jennings was picked to anchor the evening news and debuted on Feb. 1, 1965. He was 26.

“It was a little ridiculous when you think about it,” Jennings told author Barbara Matusow. “A twenty-six-year-old trying to compete with Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. I was simply unqualified.”

Critics savaged him as a pretty face unfit for the promotion. Using the Canadian pronunciations for some words and once misidentifying the Marine Corps’ anthem as “Anchors Aweigh” didn’t help his reputation. The experiment ended three years later.

He later described the humbling experience as an opportunity, “because I was obliged to figure out who I was and what I really wanted to be.”

When I was growing up and dreaming about journalism, dreaming about Woodward and Bernstein and Miriam Ottenberg and Nelly Bly, on TV every night Peter Jennings was my hero. When I was 14 I read a profile of him in one of the many women’s magazines my mother subscribed to, and was shocked that he hadn’t finished high school. I loved that he did his own reporting, got off his ass and went out to stories. Unlike the tittering hairdos on CNN and local news, he didn’t seem to banter much, waste too much time, or rely on us liking him to get us to watch the story. Which may have been why so many people liked him anyway.

Journalism, when I actually joined its ranks, doesn’t have a career track like it used to. I was raised on stories of kids who showed up to work night copy shifts and worked their way up to star reporter. That’s so much rarer now. And journalism is poorer for it, poorer for the trend towards Ivy Leaguing and professionalizing it, poorer for valuing a pedigree over brains and balls, poorer for giving front-page bylines to overpriced “trend” writers and ignoring the hard-news, all-go, no-quit tough bastards who, for want of a cute hook like a numeral for their middle name, can’t get in the door, though they do the same job as their buzzworthy counterparts and often do it better. Journalism still thinks its a meritocracy, and raises its young on myths and conceit rather than teaching them how to actually cope with the world they’ll face.

When I heard about Jennings’ death early this morning, my first thought was that if he was starting out today, and tried to break into journalism, he probably wouldn’t get very far. And we would be the poorer for having missed his sensible voice in our homes all these years.