Canadians Invade U.S. News

Peter Jennings wants to come home. Not for good - although the 59-year-old, $14-million-a-year man says that crosses his mind on occasion. But, he concedes, he loves his life in New York City and his job as the anchor and senior editor of ABC's World News Tonight too much to give it up anytime soon.

Peter Jennings wants to come home. Not for good - although the 59-year-old, $14-million-a-year man says that crosses his mind on occasion. But, he concedes, he loves his life in New York City and his job as the anchor and senior editor of ABC's World News Tonight too much to give it up anytime soon. Still, sometimes, when the tension and pace are especially daunting, Jennings feels a need to head back to his native Ottawa. For several weeks each summer, and many weekends the rest of the year, he stays at his farm in Quebec's Gatineau Hills, north of Ottawa. There, Jennings remarked recently, as he sprawled on a couch in his office in ABC's New York headquarters, "I retreat and recharge - and really feel at home."

Kevin Newman, meanwhile, is learning to feel at home in his new incarnation as co-host of ABC's Good Morning America. "There are times when I find this mind-blowing," says the 39-year-old Toronto native, who began his job last month as only the third male co-anchor in the program's 22-year history. The issue is not the work, although the recently remade morning show has stumbled off to a rocky start in some critics' eyes. Still, Newman is widely admired for his on-air ease and affability. But amidst an ABC blitz to promote the show after years of lagging ratings, Newman sees his face on everything from posters in Times Square to the front of Manhattan buses. Not to mention a feature in People magazine and an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live, the arbiters of what's hot and mainstream. Newman says the hype is "part thrill, and partly overwhelming."

For more than three decades, Canadians have played key roles in American television news - but arguably never more so than now. Turn on any news program on the Big Three networks, and chances are that a Canadian has a key role. At ABC, employees joke that the call letters stand for "Another Break for Canadians" or "America By Canadians." Along with Newman and Jennings, Ottawa native Fiona Conway is the second-in-command at Good Morning America, which she joined after being hired from CTV in February. ABC's foreign correspondents include Canadians Richard Gizbert and Sheila MacVicar in London and Gillian Findlay in Moscow. Other employees "ask me to show them the secret handshake," jokes Gizbert. He was hired after Jennings, in Montreal for the NHL all-star game in February, 1993, saw Gizbert on CTV and called the next day to offer him a job. Gizbert recalls that Jennings - who did not know him - began by asking: "How would you like to better your situation in life?"

At CBS, John Roberts anchors the Sunday evening news and fills in weekdays for Dan Rather when he is not - as now - travelling on assignment. Mark Phillips in London and Allen Pizzey in Rome are veterans of foreign coverage, and two recent additions - Jeffrey Kofman and Thalia Assuras - are reporters in the New York newsroom. And the dean of them all is Morley Safer of 60 Minutes.

At NBC, Bob McKeown and Keith Morrison are regulars on NBC's hit Dateline. McKeown, who spent a decade at CBC's the fifth estate, won renown in 1991 while at CBS for his Gulf War coup. He and his crew, relying on luck, clever planning and sheer daring, entered Kuwait City as the occupying Iraqis fled, and broadcast live for hours before American troops arrived. "My obituary will probably identify me as the first American into Kuwait," says 47-year-old McKeown with a laugh.

The list goes on, with other Canadians working as reporters for networks or anchors at affiliates. That is despite - or because of - such distinctions as a marked accent and a different way of viewing the world. "Canadians do say 'eh' and they pronounce out and about as oot and aboot," insists Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News. But, adds Heyward, "Canadians have an interest in the world that comes from being a mid-level power rather than the leading one. That is an asset." Says Mike Wallace, the legendary co-host of 60 Minutes: "It is no coincidence that two of the top news people are Morley Safer and Peter Jennings. There is a literacy, superior quality and high-level training in Canadian journalism."

The flip side is that journalists in Canada work in an environment that offers less opportunity and money. A senior reporter at the CBC, even with overtime pay, seldom earns more than $100,000. By comparison, a network correspondent in the United States usually starts at a salary of more than $100,000 (U.S.) - more than $140,000 Canadian at present exchange rates - and a far lower tax rate. Still, the attraction most cited is enhanced opportunity due to bigger markets and access to top newsmakers. "At the CBC, I reached my limits as a reporter," says McKeown. Assuras, previously a reporter and anchor at CTV and Global, says: "I wanted to live in a different country. And I wanted to work where you have all the tools you need on a story."

Still, Canadian journalism - with its more limited resources - offers a fast-track education. "Canadians do more with less," says David Westin, president of ABC News. He cites Conway, a former producer of CTV's Canada A.M. in Toronto, where about 25 employees put out a 2½-hour show daily. Says Westin: "She is tough and smart - and there are not many people with her experience running a morning show." At ABC, Conway oversees a staff five times that size for a show that runs a half-hour less. "Instead of asking whether we can afford something, the issue is how to do the best we can," she says.

Among recent émigrés, no one has risen higher, faster, than Newman. The University of Western Ontario journalism graduate worked at CTV and Global before joining the CBC in 1988, and just four years ago was co-host of the current affairs show Midday. "I am a passionate Canadian and loved the CBC," Newman says. But then, CBC officials told Newman that they wanted correspondent Ian Hanomansing to replace him - and he would go back to reporting. Newman was crushed. Sitting on his porch that weekend, he recalls: "I said a prayer to God to show me a path. The next morning, there was a voice mail from ABC."

Newman, who says the call was unsolicited, agonized with his wife, former television journalist Cathy Kearns, and their two children, Alex, now 11, and Erica, 8, over ABC's offer to co-anchor their overnight program World News Now. The CBC - where the deal with Hanomansing fell through - made counteroffers. But, Newman says, "my mind-set had changed. I wanted new challenges." The family moved to New York in late 1994. And over the next three years, Newman took on more high-profile positions. His defining event came last Labor Day weekend after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and companion Dodi Al Fayed. Newman anchored the coverage, and his knowledgeable, assured manner won raves. Says Westin: "I was not surprised, but Kevin's performance opened the eyes of a great many people."

When ABC decided to revamp its morning show, Westin says, "we wanted someone with a news background who was smart, personable and could think on their feet." By then, Newman was reading the news on Good Morning America - "so," says Westin, "there was no need to look far." The fact that Newman is Canadian was never an issue, Westin notes. "We want the best person, period - and Canadians are hardly exotic." In an observation echoed by many Newman colleagues, Westin adds: "We sought someone the audience can feel is decent and solid - and that's Kevin all the way."

Now, Newman has a three-year contract: sources say its first-year value is about $1 million (Cdn.). ABC executives hope he and co-host Lisa McRee can halt the ratings slide by fall - then reverse the trend. So far, the ratings are unchanged, and the reviews, mixed. A stinging piece in USA Today last week called Newman "pleasant-looking" and said he "seems to be a smart man," but the show is "sinking under the weight of soft features." Newman is aware of the stakes of the gamble. "If ABC eventually decides I'm not who they want, fine," he says. Although he has a new wardrobe of stylish Hugo Boss clothes and switched from glasses to contact lenses recently, he insists his essentials will not change. "I will learn, but I will not become someone different," he says. If he tires of ABC, or the network of him, he adds, "there would be no difficulty about coming back to Canada. I would do it in as long as it takes to pack."

If Newman and ABC are in the throes of a whirlwind romance, the relationship between Jennings and the network is that of a long-established marriage. "Peter is the franchise," says Westin. "Our credibility rests with him - and that's how we like it." With a total of 23 years anchoring national newscasts, Jennings has done so longer than anyone - even the venerable Walter Cronkite.

Jennings is one of the most honored journalists in any medium: he won the Washington Journalism Review's award for the country's best anchor in each of the five years it was offered, was cited by Harvard University for excellence in journalism, and has a dozen Emmys and a string of other awards. He appears in at least six documentary specials a year, and regularly takes to the field for important news - in 1992, for example, he travelled to Sarajevo during some of the most vicious infighting in the former Yugoslavia.

His track record is all the more remarkable because Jennings never finished high school. The son of former CBC radio broadcaster and executive Charles Jennings (who died in 1973) and his wife, Elizabeth, Jennings began working in radio and television while still in his teens. By his early 20s, he was hosting an interview program on CBC, and at 23, was hired by CTV to co-anchor the late-night news. ABC hired Jennings as a reporter in 1964, when he was 25. A year later, amid the youth craze sweeping North America, they gave him the evening anchor's job.

Today, Jennings describes the experience as "my great failure." Critics carped that he was too pretty, inexperienced and young. Jennings insisted on using Canadianisms - pronouncing lieutenant as lef-tenant, and schedule as shedule. Viewers were irritated or unimpressed, and the ratings did not improve. After less than three years, Jennings gave up the job and moved to ABC's Rome bureau.

That began a 15-year period of being abroad, with stints later in Beirut and London. Jennings won credibility while developing the international expertise that is one of his greatest assets. "I don't think there was a day in that period when I was not astonishingly happy as a journalist," he says.

Still, when ABC offered him his old job as anchor of the evening news in 1983, Jennings did not hesitate. For many years since, World News Tonight was the top-rated newscast. But in the mid-1990s, ABC, responding to similar moves at NBC, cut back international coverage, and moved to a down-market style. The experiment alienated viewers, and ratings slumped. "We did very badly with it," Jennings says bluntly. "The audience kicked us in the teeth." The program has since restored its former tone and added new touches. The three network news shows are now in a virtual dead heat.

Jennings is involved in every aspect of the news. He calls correspondents to discuss approaches, and uses his own thick book of international contacts. "Often, an anchor thinks he knows more than a correspondent when that is not the case," says Gizbert. "But Peter can tell you things you didn't know." Observes Nicholas Regush, a Montreal native and ABC producer: "If Peter feels a story is inappropriate or unfair, there is no chance it gets on air." Jennings is notorious for fussing over scripts, sometimes demanding changes moments before airtime. He concedes: "I am deeply involved - many might suggest too involved." Jennings's entry into a room at ABC can stop conversation. At Good Morning America, when a daily taped segment shows him promoting the evening news, crew members bow their heads and chant "Hail Peter."

Despite his intensity, Jennings in private is relaxed, welcoming, and renowned for his thoughtfulness. Last week, after the critical review in USA Today, Newman says one of the first calls he received was from Jennings, "telling me not to worry - everyone in TV goes through that." That manner is coupled with a remarkable awareness of events "at home," as Jennings refers to Canada, and Ottawa in particular, 34 years after leaving. He lobbies hard for coverage of Canada. He went to Montreal himself in 1995 for the Quebec referendum, and had a correspondent sent to Montreal during the ice storms last winter.

The New York apartment that Jennings shares with his wife, ABC producer Katherine Freed, holds his extensive collection of Inuit art. His country house in the Hamptons, designed by his sister Sarah's husband, Ian Johns, has building materials and artifacts imported from Canada. He keeps the Web sites of several Canadian newspapers, including the Ottawa Citizen, bookmarked on his computer, and discusses the NHL Ottawa Senators with the passion of a die-hard fan. He says without irony that being awarded a gold key by the City of Ottawa last year was "a great thrill." When longtime Ottawa merchant Irving Rivers, whom Jennings had known since childhood, was buried last year, Jennings was on a plane from Jerusalem to New York. "Otherwise, I would have gone straight to the funeral," he says. Instead, Jennings reached one mourner en route to the cemetery to relay his condolences, and wrote a letter to the Citizen about Rivers.

Jennings remains a Canadian citizen who resists steady pressure to become American. His younger sister, Sarah, an Ottawa-based arts journalist who often visits him, says: "I cannot count the times friends razz him about not being a citizen." When Jennings hosted a 1995 program concerning the atom bomb that America dropped on Hiroshima 50 years earlier, he says, some angry viewers "said 'that son of a bitch should get the hell out,' " and "some sent bus fare, saying 'Go back to Canada.' " Jennings cheerfully did just that - resting at his farm while the furor played out.

While he emphasizes that he "adores" the United States, he has some criticisms. There is, he says, "a Canadian notion that influence, not just power, matters in the world. Canadians are hungry to see the rest of the world. It's hard to find American reporters these days who want to be foreign correspondents." Jennings was particularly troubled by the reaction in May when German-owned Daimler-Benz announced its takeover of Chrysler. "Even among very intelligent Americans, you sense a bit of xenophobia," he says. "I noticed that even at our own editorial meetings. Maybe we [Canadians] are just more accustomed to having others own pieces of our property."

In fact, Sarah Jennings says: "If anything, Peter has become more Canadian than ever in the past 15 years." One reason is Jennings's two children, Christopher, 16, and Elizabeth, 18, from a previous marriage. Jennings bought his Ottawa-area farm close to a decade ago to ensure that the New York-raised children would be in touch with their roots. His ties to Canada also deepened in the wake of the death six years ago of his mother - an elegant and strong-willed figure who was deeply loved by both children. That left Sarah as his immediate family - and the two had not been very close as children. "After Mother died, I worried that Pete might drift off," Sarah says. "Instead, we grew much closer - and he is more devoted than ever to home."

Today, Jennings worries about changes in television journalism: networks are losing viewers, news divisions are cutting spending, and there are more "lite 'n' brite" stories. "I'm not sure I would be so excited to get into TV these days," he says. He adds that he could give up his job easily enough - provided he found something else to stop him from becoming restless. He muses: "I would like to be something like the head of UNICEF." He adds, less seriously: "I love the Ottawa Valley: perhaps Max Keeping [anchor of CJOH] would let me do his job."

For all that, Jennings will likely continue doing exactly what he now does for some time. He stays fit through canoeing, skiing, sailing and tennis. He looks at least 15 years less than his age, with an energy level to match. Time has taught him what he is - and is not. "I am not an intellectual," he says. "I have a good quality by TV standards, which is to reduce complicated ideas to literal or literate packages which people can understand." After close to 40 years in the business, Jennings remains passionate about news - and new experiences. "I would die if I had to stop travelling, and learning new things," he says. And it would be hard to imagine American television without one of its greatest icons - and its most unabashedly pro-Canadian cheerleader.

Maclean's June 22, 1998