Monday, August 08, 2005

Back to you, Peter

The passing of Peter Jennings last night will no doubt trigger an outpouring of obituaries and editorials heralding the official end of the Network News Era, placing Jennings's death in the context of the recent retirements of fellow network anchormen Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. Of course, that era probably ended some time ago. The real era the Jennings' death is helping to usher out is the Era of Self-Taught Journalists.

Jennings left high school after his sophomore year to work in radio news in Ottawa. Brokaw got his start in broadcasting at a radio station in Yankton, South Dakota. Dan Rather's first reporting job was for the Houston Chronicle and its affiliated radio station. They all cut their teeth in an era when there were no established rules for how you become an anchorman. Jennings's first stint as ABC's national nightly news anchor came when he was 26 years old, essentially because ABC figured, "Why not?". All three of them have covered everything.

Those kinds of backgrounds are still out there. CBS's Bob Schieffer started as a print reporter in Texas. CNN's Christiane Amanpour began her career at a radio station in Providence, Rhode Island.

Here at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, I can point to a start as news director for a tiny station in Decorah, Iowa. (I can also admit to a little chutzpah in lumping myself in with Jennings, Rather, et al.) After bombing out of my first college, a friend sent me a consoling note, telling me "the world can use another Peter Jennings". She was right, but I still got my act together and finished college.

But increasingly, we're living in the kind of place where people want to be on TV, so they get a degree in Radio-TV, and then - amazingly - they end up on TV. We run into them at news stories and they're chatting with each other about clothing allowances and their next jobs. They're ending up on the Society Page of the local newspaper. Brian Williams' biography on notes that GQ Magazine called him "the most interesting man in television today". We'll cut Williams a little slack for also having worked in a market as small as Pittsburg, Kansas. But it seems unlikely that Peter Jennings would have needed to trumpet a GQ quote. The talk show shouters started out as congressmen, judges, and, um, talk show hosts -- anything but a journalism background.

My only encounter with Peter Jennings came in the media room at a debate before the 1988 New Hampshire primaries. I was covering it for the newspaper at the college at which I would later bomb out. Jennings came in to the room wearing, if I recall correctly, a ski vest, flannel shirt, jeans, and Hush Puppies shoes. He had just returned from the Winter Olympics in Calgary and was sharing his impressions with anyone who would listen, which in this case was a know-nothing college newspaper reporter.

I don't remember any of his stories of Calgary, but that he would do such a thing left its own impression.

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