Peter Jennings will anchor ABCs World News Tonight from Tampa today and Wednesday. He also will host a town hall meeting at USF for broadcast next month.
Ask ABC News anchor Peter Jennings why he has decided to visit Tampa in the middle of November's crucial sweeps ratings period and he'll counter with a question of his own.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I'll go anywhere I can in the country, and I can't remember the last time I was in Tampa," said Jennings, who will anchor his World News Tonight broadcast from strategically picked spots in the city today and Wednesday.
"People go on the road sometimes and they look often in desperation to find something they can do to make their visit relevant," said the anchor, who regularly takes his show to cities outside its Manhattan home to escape the New York/Washington national media mind-set. "My philosophy is much simpler: Go anywhere and the country, the city, the state will reveal itself. I have a pretty invigorating life, but being on the road is about as invigorating as invigorating comes."
Jennings, who built his reputation covering the Middle East for ABC in the '70s, plans a visit to U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. One reason: "I've never actually been there," he said, chuckling, "though I spent a fair amount of time on the other side of the operation."
He also will moderate a town hall meeting Wednesday at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health for an audience of about 375. Videotaped for broadcast in December, the discussion will feature a panel including WFTS-Ch. 28 anchor Brendan McLaughlin and Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times.
It's a whirlwind stop that brings attention to Tampa's ABC affiliate at a time when WFTS is working hard to build on sluggish ratings.
It's also a show of solidarity by WFTS with the network news division. It comes months after WFTS substituted CNN simulcasts for ABC News coverage during the space shuttle Columbia disaster and the start of hostilities in Iraq. In both cases, ABC was so slow in ramping up coverage that local stations were left off-balance, causing a painfully public rift between the network and its affiliates.
"I know concerns were expressed on several levels, and I know ABC put certain structures in place to keep those problems from ever happening again," said Bill Berra, news director at WFTS, which has helped organize the town hall meeting. "From everything I've been able to find out, they've taken care of it."
Jennings bristled slightly at the implication that such delays indicated larger problems with ABC's news coverage.
"Were we slow on those occasions? Yes. . . . People got smacked about the head for it, and I think we're in a lot better shape now," he said. "I remember when the first Gulf War broke out and in the middle of World News Tonight, we lost our feed to Baghdad. I could hear everybody in the nation switching to CNN. . . . It wasn't long before they came back to ABC. We've been doing this for 35, 40 years now, and I think our consistency stands out."
All this comes just before Jennings' two-hour special at 9 p.m. Thursday examining the murder of President John F. Kennedy, dubbed Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination - Beyond Conspiracy.
From Tampa, he'll head to Dallas for Thursday's World News Tonight and the special, a re-examination of the crime two days before its 40th anniversary. For Beyond Conspiracy, Jennings interviewed 70 people and used a sophisticated computer animation analysis to prove that theories of a conspiracy are unfounded.
Unaware that Kennedy visited Tampa just before he went to Dallas in 1963, the anchor won't be including material from the Tampa Bay area in his special.
"Anniversaries are wonderful opportunities for journalists to try and give people some context of the times," Jennings told National Public Radio in August about another historical project of his, a special on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. "I don't think we understand the present and hardly ever understand the future if we don't understand the past."
Experts say such interests set Jennings apart from his rivals at NBC and CBS, prompting the anchor to spend more time on less newsy subjects such as sociology, history, culture and the arts during his newscasts.
"One of the components . . . that gives Jennings a cerebral and cosmopolitan air is that he's more interested in the world around and these non-news "back of the book'-type stories," said Andrew Tyndall, a TV news analyst in New York. "I think it suits his style."
Jennings' unflappably smooth on-air demeanor - he has been called the James Bond of network news anchors - has often contrasted sharply with the aggressive, barely contained emotions of Dan Rather on CBS and the middle-of-the-road approach of Tom Brokaw on NBC, Tyndall said.
Jennings shows no signs of slowing at age 65, even as Rather eases past 72 and Brokaw at 63 prepares to retire from NBC's anchor job in November 2004. Which leaves Jennings, a high school dropout turned award-winning TV journalist, poised to be the last man standing among an increasingly rare species: the network news anchor.
"In the early '80s, when these guys first sat down and started anchoring, TVs didn't come with remote controls, CNN was in its first years of operation and . . . the audience these three men commanded was enormous," said Jeff Alan, author of the book Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News. "Now, they have less than half the viewership they had during the '80s. . . . You're looking at the last big superstar news anchors. When Peter Jennings retires, it will be the end of an era."
It also will mark the end of an anchoring career that began in 1965, when Jennings, then a 27-year-old phenom imported from Canada's CTV network, took the reins at ABC's 15-minute national newscast.
Drafted as a young face for a then-upstart news division, Jennings lasted about three years before low ratings and a thirst for experience pushed him into international news reporting, according to Alan's book. But that brief turn in the anchor chair makes Jennings the only network news anchor to work in five decades over 40 years at the same network, Alan said.
But the same international perspective and worldly skepticism that built his reputation have irked some of Jennings' critics, who accuse him of pro-Arab bias, going soft on terrorism post-Sept. 11 and unfairly criticizing the war in Iraq.
Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales in particular has singled out Jennings for steady criticism, along with the Washington, D.C., conservative watchdog group Media Research Center, which calls Jennings "Palestine Pete" in one Web page it maintains.
Jennings, who has heard such complaints for years, brushes off the barbs. "I think it's admirable for reporters to be skeptical, provided they're not cynical," he said. "But I'm not any more skeptical about Republican administrations than I am about Democratic administrations."
It helps that many mainstream media outlets have grown more skeptical of the Iraq war in recent months as insurgency in the country increases and the death toll for U.S. soldiers rises.
"I think it's one of the things of which I am rather proud about ABC News: that many of the questions being asked now about the venture in Iraq are questions we asked before the war," Jennings said. "And (they were asked) in a sometimes overheated environment in which patriotism and nationalism have been big issues."
The anchor, who was born in Canada, recently removed one criticism leveled by those who dispute his fairness. He became an American citizen (he is keeping his Canadian citizenship).
When asked why it took 40 years to take the leap, Jennings had another succinct answer ready.
"It was time."
Remembering JFK and more
Jennings isn't the only broadcaster using the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination to explore the president's life and death. Here's a quick list of JFK and Jennings-related air dates: The JFK Assassination: Investigation Reopened, 9 p.m. Wednesday, Court TV.
JFK: Breaking the News, 8 p.m. Wednesday, WEDU-Ch. 3.
The Kennedy Tapes Revealed, 8 p.m. Friday, Bravo.
Unrivaled Access: The JFK Films by Robert Drew, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, History Channel.
Also, ABC Action News: Issues for Our Times - A Town Meeting Moderated by Peter Jennings will air on WFTS at 10 a.m. Dec. 7, 1:05 a.m. Dec. 10 and 7 p.m. Dec. 13.