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Compilation doesn't do justice to career of Peter Jennings

Peter Jennings deserves better than this. Maybe someday someone will write a definitive biography of the well-respected, well-liked and much-trusted television newsman. This isn't it.

What it is, is a collection of words people have written or spoken about Jennings, including his own.

The work actually has 81 authors, not including the subject. What they said or wrote about Jennings was culled from an ABC documentary about his life or from eulogies at his memorial service a month after the documentary aired.

The editors include the woman Jennings was married to for the eight years before cancer claimed him at 67 in 2005. What she and her co-editors have done is trace Jennings' life through his family, friends and associates. Some of them have recognizable names -- Walter Cronkite, Bill Clinton, Barbara Walters. Others are not so recognizable -- Gretchen Barbarovic, Jenna Millman, Alexandra Wolfe. Their admiration, often their love for Jennings, oozes from the pages, but it oozes in a manner that forces the reader to struggle.

Each of the commentators -- that's a better description of their contribution than author -- is listed in the first few pages along with his or her connection to Jennings. But therein lies the struggle. As the editors attempt to piece together what they have to say about Jennings, the reader, except for the famous, doesn't know the commentator's association with Jennings and must thumb back to the front to learn the relationship.

What results is a disjointed compilation of comments, sometimes with four or five persons' words on a single page. Of course, the reader learns about Jennings along the way:

*He was a disinterested student growing up in Canada.

*His father was a famous Canadian broadcaster.

*He bombed when first named anchor of ABC News at 26.

*He liked to greet people in their language when traveling to foreign lands.

*He was fascinated with America and eventually became a citizen.

*He was a persistent, tenacious, erudite newsman.

*He liked children.

*He loved his wife.

Sometimes, what the reader learns reveals what a true biography might. Ted Koppel, for instance, recalled the time he and Jennings had a day off from covering the 1964 presidential campaign and raced a sports car up and down Camelback Mountain in Arizona. A real biography might have explored a daring, adventurous nature to explain his gifts as a newsman. But not this one.

On to the next memory.

And, perhaps because his widow was a co-editor, the reader learns nothing about his first three marriages.

The stories are often touching, revealing Jennings as a man who cared about the homeless, who reveled in talking to people, who enjoyed more than anything a quiet canoe trip on a Canadian lake. But anecdote after anecdote, memory after memory, often about the same trait or mannerism, soon grows tedious. No one reveals anything awful about the man. Could he have that perfect a human being?

Probably not, but then again, this is not a real biography. It's more like a 321-page obituary about a distinguished journalist, an obituary he'd probably frown upon for being unbalanced and overly syrupy.

Lee Coppola is the dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism.


Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life

Edited by Kate Darnton, Kayce Freed Jennings and Lynn Sherr


321 pages, $27.95

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