American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Peter Jennings

President Waterbury:

Peter Jennings presents a delicate challenge to a university president. He never finished high school in his native Canada, and his attendance at university was less than whole hearted. He confesses that he was more interested in football and hockey than in studies, despite the futile urgings of his father, himself a newsman and broadcaster. The fact that Peter Jennings passed up what AUB and thousands of other institutions of higher learning have to offer obviously did him no lasting harm. Peter​s extraordinary success should give all of us professional educators a lesson in humility. But we will not dwell too long on this lesson, and we will not advertise it to our students.

Besides sports, Peter Jennings was interested from an early age in broadcasting, and when only nine hosted his own radio program geared for children called Peter's People. Some years later, he moved into radio as a news reporter handling a variety of news stories he covered the building of the Berlin Wall and the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Jennings was lured to the US by ABC (the American Broadcasting Corporation) and was named one of the co-anchors of ABC Evening News in 1965. He was only in his mid-twenties. It was not a comfortable experiment either for Jennings or for ABC, and in 1968 he was sent out to Beirut to set up ABC's Middle East Bureau.

In his seven years in Beirut, Jennings reported stories from virtually every Arab nation as well as from Israel. He became a voice for quiet and reasoned understanding of the Middle East. I am tempted to say that sometimes he was the sole voice of reason, but he never descended into advocacy or simplistic explanations. He has always been balanced in the true sense of the word, his balance flowing from a genuine concern to understand what drives all parties to this region's intractable problems. It is an unfortunate sign of our times that this kind of balance is seen by some as unbalanced, masking a subtle bias.

In 1975 ABC promoted Jennings to chief foreign correspondent based in London. In 1983 he returned to New York as the sole anchor for World News Tonight. He has anchored that program ever since and has become a household name and a steady presence and voice for Americans in good times and bad. When the 9/11 tragedy occurred, he broadcast uninterrupted for seventeen hours. I was in the newsroom when it happened, when the first plane hit, so I was steps five feet from the anchor desk. And I did what you always do in a circumstance like that: You sit down, you plug in, and you begin to try to make sense of what is happening. One part of this marathon following 9/11 was to meet, on camera, with a group of New York children who were trying to come to grips with the awful event. Peter is great with children. It is a special gift he has.

Peter Jennings Reporting is an innovative series of one-hour prime-time specials investigating such issues as the abortion debate, the changing face of religion, the crisis of funding for the arts, and international hot spots. The series won the Overseas Press Club Award for its examination of peacekeeping in Bosnia as well as the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On June 26, 2000, more than 16 million viewers watched The Search for Jesus, for which he traveled to the Middle East to trace the life of Jesus. As testimony to the tremendous range of Jennings' reporting and analysis, here are a few other titles in the series:
The Cocaine War, Lost in Bolivia, ABC, 1992

Who Is Ross Perot ABC, 1992

Men, Sex, and Rape, ABC, 1992

Never Say Die How the Cigarette Companies Keep on Winning, ABC, 1996

Jerusalem Stories, ABC, 1996

Unfinished Business: The CIA and Saddam Hussein, ABC, 1997

Bitter Medicine: Pills, Profit, and the Public Health, 2002

Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness, April 2004

Noting the proliferation of news sources through the internet and new TV channels, Peter Jennings sees his series as an in-depth antidote to quick and dirty news reporting and delivery. In recent years, to quote Jennings, news divisions and the corporations that own news divisions came to the conclusion that news should be moneymaking and, secondly, should never be money-losing. And having made a huge amount of money, and become accustomed to it, the idea of putting on a broadcast simply for the good of the country is less likely to occur. The millions of viewers who watch Peter Jennings Reporting prove that there is still hope for broadcasting that is intrinsically good.

Peter Jennings is a professional's professional. He has won Harvard University's Goldsmith Career Award for excellence in journalism and the coveted Radio and Television News Directors Paul White Award, chosen by the news directors of all three major networks. In 2001, he was awarded the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast from the National Press Foundation. He is a member of AUB's International Advisory Council.

By intuition or luck Peter Jennings has often been the right person in the right place at the right time. And so it is today. We forgive you, Peter, for your early dismissal of our product, but we will not forgive you if you do not come back and come back often.

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