For most of his career as a news reporter and anchor, Peter Jennings typified the type of character that Americans have come to expect from our criers: good-looking, even-keeled and well-spoken. Along with Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, Jennings came to define the look of American news programs, and for that alone he holds a special place in the culture of the United States. On September 11, 2001, though, Jennings began with us a tragic journey that would cement his place as a television pioneer and change the way we live our lives forever. In many ways, Peter Jennings became our face and voice during and after the 9/11 attacks.
When Americans first saw the images of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York, most of us could not comprehend what we were seeing, and we needed something, or someone, to grab onto for information and comfort. While all of the major networks covered the events of that terrible day, many millions of us turned to Peter Jennings, by choice or by convenience, and never turned away. At once, Jennings reflected the horror and bewilderment that we were feeling, while also doing his best to maintain the dulcet tones that had served him so well in his career. For seventeen long hours, Jennings stayed by our side as we learned that the initial crash was followed by a second, that the pentagon had also been hit, that Flight 93 had gone down and that the WTC towers had collapsed.
Jennings seemed as befuddled as the rest of us as he commented on the scene unfolding in New York, and his struggles to make sense of the mayhem made him a friend in commiseration. At one point during the broadcast, Jennings received phone calls from his children, and his polished exterior cracked, even if briefly, as he implored us to reach out to our own loved ones and drink in the comfort that those connections would impart.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Jennings traveled the United States, in part to promote a book project, and in part to chronicle the pain and healing of a nation fighting to rebound from arguably it's worst tragedy. A year after the attacks, Jennings hosted a series of television specials to discuss his experiences and help us reflect on who we had been and who we were becoming as a nation. It is somewhat ironic that a native Canadian became one of the faces that Americans embraced, reflecting to us the pain and contemplation in which we were enveloped. Jennings eventually became a dual citizen of the two nations.
Within four years of the 9/11 attacks, Jennings would be dead from lung cancer, an affliction that he attributed in part to having begun smoking again due to the stress of the tragedy and its aftermath. Peter Jennings helped America cope with one of our greatest challenges and then, in death, left us with an indelible reminder of the devastation we endured and the ways our lives had changed forever.
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