When Peter Jennings succumbed to lung cancer on Aug. 7, the world lost more than a news anchor; it lost an archetype. Above and beyond his contributions as a journalist, Jennings held an appeal in the popular mind owing as much to the Golden Age of Hollywood as to the "Big Three" glory days of network news. The essence of that appeal, his smooth urbanity and air of cultivation, was the precise charisma that had made film stars Frederic March, Cary Grant and David Niven such icons of sophistication in their day; and it is this same appeal that now, with Jennings gone, is utterly missing from a news universe populated by smarmy Shepard Smiths and hipper-than-thou Anderson Coopers.
During his 22 years as the face of ABC News, Jennings could hardly have presented a more dramatic alternative to his two rivals, the affable, plain-spoken Tom Brokaw and the sometimes folksy, often over-serious, always slightly off-kilter Dan Rather. Perhaps Jennings' suave manner (his detractors called him "aloof") came from an innate Canadian politeness, or his many years as a London-based foreign correspondent, or perhaps even from an urge to overcompensate for his never having graduated from high school.
Regardless, this confidence manifested itself in a certain something he did with his eyes. When the camera zoomed in at the newscast's outset, he'd inevitably be gazing at the monitor to his left. As the musical fanfare faded down, he'd launch into the top story, eyes still lingering momentarily on that off-screen monitor as he spoke: "We begin tonight in Beirut," he'd say, and then pivot his gaze into the camera head-on and continue, "where the political fallout continues after..." It was subtle, this eye/text shift, but it telegraphed a casual familiarity, as if he and a few chums had been chatting about the day's events over a snifter of cognac, and then, upon seeing you walk into the room, he'd turned to you, mid-phrase, to bring you into the conversation.
While this and other nonverbal Jennings staples complemented the stories' content, it seems certain that, at least stylistically, Jennings will have no heir. News managers today aren't looking to hire Cary Grant, the man of distinction; they're looking for Matt LeBlanc, the dude next door. In fact, if young reporters in 2005 were to emulate the air of aristocracy that rocketed Peter Jennings to stardom two decades ago, they'd likely be shown the door. Q-score focus groups interpret urbanity as snobbery these days, which may be why Jennings himself lost ratings supremacy to Tom Brokaw when the glamorous 1980s gave way to the naturalistic '90s. Once the millennium arrived, forget it: His brand of romantic persona had been supplanted by Britney Spears making pig noses and reality-TV contestants eating and vomiting up live worms.
The offshoot of this anti-elegance trend in TV news is a consultant-driven push toward a "conversational delivery" far removed from Jennings' clipped elocution. Fox News' Shepard Smith is the anchor of the future, and he owes not an ounce of his on-air persona to Jennings' influence. "Shep" pushes conversational delivery to grotesque extremes, turning every "ing" into an "in'," parroting tabloid catchphrases like "Wacko Jacko," and committing participial atrocities à la "The president tonight, signaling he won't budge on stem cell research..." But it's not only Shep who's expected to adopt dude-next-door diction and mannerisms. For other examples, see Anderson Cooper's intricately calibrated cool, Matt Lauer's boyish joshing, and Brian Williams' fake-Rolex knockoff of predecessor Tom Brokaw's phlegmy Midwestern burr. These and other male news anchors no longer exude savoir-faire (leaving Diane Sawyer to pick up the slack) because Hollywood actors no longer exude it. Yesteryear's debonair hero has passed the torch to today's cute goofball mensch: Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Ashton Kutcher.
Alas, a solid J-school background is no longer required for aspiring reporters and anchors, who are now routinely plucked from the ranks of reality shows: Neleh Dennis parlayed her runner-up status on "Survivor: Marquesas" into a reporting gig at Salt Lake City's KUTV; "The Apprentice" candidate Erin Elmore landed a reporting job at Jacksonville, Fla.'s WTLV. Thus, in the absence of both journalistic credentials and an air of dignity among the next generation of TV journalists, discriminating viewers in recent years had but one choice if they sought an evening news presenter who would deliver the day's stories intelligently and with a lagniappe of soul-soothing panache. That choice died along with Peter Jennings.