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MAN OF THE WORLD IN L.A. JENNINGS DRIVEN TO DIG EVER DEEPER FOR ANSWERS.

Byline: David Kronke

Television Writer Peter Jennings saunters down Alvarado Street near MacArthur Park before his cameras for a ``World News Tonight'' story on Los Angeles. The ABC anchorman says he came to Los Angeles last week because many of the major issues that seem to originate here - such as the growing Latino population, urban sprawl and the power crisis - also confront the rest of the country.

As he passes shops offering Spanish-language videos, tarot cards and voodoo candles, Jennings is approached by a trio of young Latino men and, removing his sunglasses and dangling them between his teeth by the earpiece, speaks to them in what he calls ``rusty'' Spanish. A clip of this scene appears as B-roll in that evening's broad report on Los Angeles; another clip of life along Alvarado shows up the following evening in a report on urban sprawl.

``I was asking these guys why they come here, what they find attractive here, and the answer was fairly simple, which was jobs,'' Jennings explains. ``Then I asked, are they happy here? Long pause. I then asked if they created jobs in Mexico, would they go home, and their answer was, 'Of course.' I'm not sure that's necessarily true, but it does speak to why people, wherever they come from unless they left under desperate circumstances of persecution but sometimes even then, feel very strongly about their roots.''

People along Alvarado perhaps recognize Jennings because last October ``World News Tonight'' became the first network newscast to be simulcast in Spanish, available via the Secondary Audio Program (SAP) Channel in 33 markets, including Los Angeles (or maybe because he's inspired his own hip-hop group, Peter Jennings Disciples). Continuing the network's commitment to issues of importance to Latino viewers, Jennings left L.A. for Mexico to interview President Vicente Fox before returning to New York. The report will air this week.

As he continues along the boulevard, a fan stops Jennings and asks what brings him to Los Angeles. Jennings talks with people just long enough to give them a snatch of quality time but is masterful at moving along. When the fan asks, ``You're out of D.C., right?'' Jennings corrects him and moves on with a punch line - ``New York - I'm half sane.''

For the journalist, travel is as essential to his job as computers and cameras. ``One of the reasons I do this and my father did it before me is because it's a wonderful way to walk in places that other people don't go,'' Jennings says during an interview to and from the Alvarado set-up in an SUV crammed with camera equipment, one in which he, ever the reporter, poses as many questions as he answers.

``He's the smoothest, most suave, most cosmopolitan of the anchors,'' observes Scott Collins of industry analyst Inside.com. ``Brokaw's more Midwestern and Rather's from Texas, and they exude that. Jennings spent a long time in London and has been all over, and you can tell; he's much more a man of the world. I think he feeds on that and that's how ABC wants to position him.

``He's a lot more palatable on the fly than Rather is,'' Collins continues. ``I was flipping between Rather and Jennings during their election night coverage, and there was some freaky stuff going at the ABC studio - misfires, lights blowing out, but Jennings handled it very well. He's just unflappable. He's very, very solid; it always feels like he has a sure grasp on the subject.''

Besides L.A.'s multiculturalism, the other story that fascinates Jennings is the impending entertainment industry strikes. He tells of spending his plane ride to California chatting with someone working on the ``Spider-Man'' film, who was just ``terrified'' of the strike. ``The strike would just tie this town up like nobody's business,'' he notes. ``The anxiety level seems to have gone up in the past week or so. Everybody will get touched.''

Nonetheless, Jennings the documentary junkie - among his projects was a 12-hour special tied in to his book ``The Century''; he's currently working on another epic for 2002 titled ``America'' - notes that one small benefit of the strike would be that ``it'd be an opportunity for us to do a lot of information programming, because often our documentaries do better than the movies in the ratings,'' he adds with no small satisfaction.

At age 9, Jennings hosted a Canadian children's radio show, ``Peter's People.'' He was the youngest network anchor in the 1960s, anchoring ABC's nightly report from 1965 to '68 before being dispatched throughout the globe and returning to the anchor's chair in 1983. Those 15 years in the field, he believes, helped make the network's universally acclaimed millennial special, ``ABC 2000,'' such a smashing success.

``I didn't need any sleep and I didn't drink any coffee,'' Jennings says of the 25-hour marathon which he moderated from start to finish. ``That would've been a really hard broadcast for someone who hadn't been a lot of places and wasn't passionately interested in globalism and America's place in the world.''

Jennings also cops to being the most ``hands-on'' of the network anchors; his broadcast is most tailored to his sensibilities and news judgment. ``I can't answer as to why that is, or even the ultimate value of it,'' he says, ``but it's just the way I am. I am a very hands-on, very tough taskmaster - my friends might say I'm toughest on myself.''

As proof, Jennings offers this deconstruction of ABC News' ratings performance of the past few years (it has generally been No. 2, behind NBC). ``Some time after the O.J. Simpson trial, we had been No. 1 for quite a while, and NBC passed us. We took a hard look at NBC, and it was fairly obvious that they do a more populist broadcast. And we said, 'Well, that must be the thing to do,' and when we tried to do it our ratings went down further. It took us a while to recover and say, 'That was dumb, let's go back to our instincts.' ''

And he can also be critical of the competition. A trend he finds particularly odious, he says, is ``the relentlessness to stay on a story of a marginal nature because it's happening. I was watching the shooting outside the White House; it was over in 45 minutes. It was reason for us to interrupt and go on very briefly and say what was going on: They got the guy; here's a briefing on security at the White House. Well, MSNBC flogged it to death all afternoon, as MSNBC will flog anything. But CNN was on and on and on and on, and I could just hear the decision-makers at CNN saying, 'We can't go off - MSNBC is still on.' That's really sad.''

Jennings has also been outspoken about the media's coverage of Washington, D.C. He notes that his colleague Sam Donaldson's early declaration that the Monica Lewinsky scandal would end Bill Clinton's political career was ``a remark I think Sam probably regrets now,'' and adds, ``We've had a long, long period of cynicism in the Washington press corps - I'm one of them who thinks it's been too cynical and not particularly good for the country. And the notion that a reporter's reputation in Washington should be in any way enhanced by the tougher he is is not a good idea.

``You could argue that Bill Clinton's behavior and his ability to escape contributed to a good portion of that cynicism,'' Jennings continues, before adding that he believes the current coverage of Clinton's pardons scandal is likewise overblown. The question, he says, is ``What is interesting, what is relevant, what belongs on the front page? The mainstream media finds itself being pushed again, muscled a little bit into doing more of the story because someone else is.''

When Jennings entered the business, there were three networks, each delivering 15 minutes of news a day. Now, not only has his base of operations expanded exponentially, but he's also competing against three round-the-clock news operations, and the pressure he feels compels him to do a better job.

``This is a bit of a struggle in the news business - I think in time, we will all become niches,'' Jennings says, noting that the struggle is to continue being relevant. ``You can see what's happening to the audiences. And if you keep doing the same thing as the next person, and the audience thinks they're doing it better, there's no reason for them to watch you.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo: (1) NBC anchorman Peter Jennings, center, talks with three Mexican immigrants in downtown Los Angeles for an upcoming story on the city's growing problems.

(2) Anchorman Peter Jennings does a stand-up report across the street from L.A.'s MacArthur Park.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 21, 2001
Words:1474
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