A Fond Farewell
How Peter Jennings’ Middle East Expertise Helped a Newspaper Reporter
By Patrick J. Sloyan
We drained the last drop of Carmel cabernet. Peter Charles Jennings ordered another bottle. "If it wasn't for this place," he said with a sweep of his arm, "I would have died."
Patrick J. Sloyan (email@example.com) covered Washington for United Press International and Newsday.
The slightly boozy gesture was meant not for the dining room but the surrounding Jerusalem hotel, the American Colony. A former pasha's splendid home and stunning courtyard had become headquarters for countless journalists who swarmed to cover the Mideast turmoil.
Most reporters seem to have faced death on one assignment or another, and Jennings' tale was hardly among the most harrowing. A scorpion bite---I think it happened while Jennings was in the Sinai---had been improperly treated until he arrived at the American Colony and collapsed with an infection and a fever. His misery was compounded by nightmares as he drifted in and out of sleep in a dark room with vaulted alcove ceilings and cool stone floors. "I thought I was going to die, and I probably would have if it hadn't been for Horatio," Jennings said of the hotel owner, Horatio Vester, who provided a modern physician with modern drugs.
When death finally caught up with Jennings August 7 at age 67, that dinner, the wine and the story of the scorpion came back to me. For Jennings, it was a painful paragraph in a chapter of his life as a reporter. He had paid his dues before sitting in the anchor chair for 23 years, establishing reporting credentials once mandatory for the men and women who handle the most important news of the day. None in the anchor chair today has the grasp of detail for both national and international affairs that Jennings earned the hard way.
Jennings projected that experience as ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor when we were left breathless by the unexpected, such as the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. In instantly synthesizing what left many numb that day, Jennings fell back on a lifetime of reporting experience. Like everyone else, he scrambled for information, but he was terribly careful and mostly masterful for hours on end. Seven years of beat reporting in the Mideast had sharpened his insights into Islam and prepared him to cover those unthinkable events and their aftermath.
We first met in 1980 while covering an economic summit meeting of world leaders in Italy and began an exchange of information that continued until the months before his death.
The summit was held on Venice's Lido Island. Network news budgets were freewheeling back then. ABC had its own flotilla and a dispatcher at dockside. You could choose a vessel with or without a sailor who sang "O Solo Mio." The choice broke up Jennings and Steve Bell, another ABC reporter, who likened network spending to a rocket in space. "We are at the apogee," Bell said prophetically. "We're headed back down after this."
Before becoming a foreign correspondent, I had covered Washington and the White House for 20 years. When we first met, Jennings recognized me from televised White House news conferences. I recognized him as the Hollywood-handsome personality who served as ABC News anchor in 1965 before being exiled abroad.
But I had no idea of his abilities as a reporter. My appreciation of Jennings' expertise began on October 6, 1981, the day Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. While I was familiar with Sadat and the Mideast from a Washington perspective, that background was meaningless as I stepped into the turmoil of Cairo that night. I had no idea who the assassins might be. Jennings did. He told me they were likely fundamentalist Muslims. That angle became the lead of my wrap-up on a series of articles that the American Society of Newspaper Editors later honored as the best spot news writing.
I was just as green when I arrived in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982. Jennings, ABC's bureau chief in Beirut since 1973, was waiting for me with an itinerary and, more important, his driver. "Take him all around," he told the driver. "Everywhere." He wagged his finger at me. "When you get to the Green Line, be very careful. This is a crazy place."
On and off, for more than 22 years, we exchanged notes and gossip by phone or in meetings in places from Reykjavik to New Orleans. The trading of newsworthy information – a tradition without written guidelines---is called a "fill," as in, "I will fill you in." It is practiced by reporters who share a mutual respect.
Jennings was delighted at my Pulitzer for international reporting in 1992 for my coverage of Desert Storm. "I hope you are going to acknowledge me in your acceptance speech," Jennings joked, although he never made the list of all the men and women who helped me uncover the grisly details of the first Iraq war.
Other experienced reporters also helped me over my first hurdles in the Mideast. But the insights and advice of Peter Jennings came early and were instrumental in making me more surefooted in Arab capitals.
So, Peter, thanks for the fill.
Patrick J. Sloyan is a former senior correspondent in Newsday's Washington bureau.