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Friday, February 3, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jennings At His Zenith -- In Seattle, ABC's Top News Anchor Hints He'll Step Down Soon

Good evening. We begin tonight by glimpsing a career at its pinnacle.

Peter Jennings is the most-watched newscaster in America. Yesterday he anchored ABC's "World News Tonight" from Seattle for the first time.

Today could be the last time he does that.

Jennings says he doesn't expect to be doing nightly newscasts after his current contract, reported to be $7 million a year, runs out in 1997. Instead, he hopes to work on special projects, including a 25-hour prime-time series about the 20th century, set to hit the air in two years.

He's already been stealing away from breaking news occasionally with a series of "Peter Jennings Reports."

"Who knows? I just think that it's very hard," he said of the "World News Tonight" grind. "I love it at the moment. But there's a certain regimentation to it.

"I'm 56, so five years from now I'm going to be over 60. I may change my mind altogether, but there are parts of the world I haven't seen," Jennings said.

One might be hard-pressed to name any. Half of his 30 years with the network have been spent overseas. After 11 years of anchoring "World News Tonight," there isn't much left for Jennings to prove in the breaking-news realm.

"I'd love to try writing more seriously than I do. I do love long-form programming. I would love to do a talk show."

On the run

Yesterday was a long-form day. Jennings wrote on the fly, and there was even a talk show. He gave a speech, delivered the news twice, bantered live on KOMO-TV (Channel 4) with anchors Dan Lewis and Kathi Goertzen.

His two-day visit, which concludes with today's 6 p.m. broadcast of "World News Tonight," is a favor by ABC to Seattle affiliate KOMO - and an unusual opportunity for the crew to get out of New York without covering mega-news.

"I'm disappointed Americans don't know more about their own country," said Jennings, a Canadian. "And we sometimes forget that television has the ability to take people somewhere."

So he brings millions to Seattle this week, with correspondents and producers examining the regional economy, Seattle medicine, our government pork. All the while, Jennings' face and words and influence are on loan to KOMO, which has cashed in, it has seemed, every few minutes.

It has been an odd collision of national empirical journalism and celebration of a celebrity.

Along the way, Jennings has been introspective and circumspect about the business and his job.

"It really means having a front-row seat," he said, relaxing inside a rented motor home on Queen Anne Hill, where he is anchoring the news. "I was there as a young reporter when the Berlin Wall went up. We were there when the wall came down. That's pretty good stuff."

Yet the business has changed. He talked of the dwindling confidence the people have in government and media.

"It is surely time for American journalism to look with a critical eye at what we do," he told the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce at lunch.

The ubiquitous trial

At no stop yesterday was it possible for Jennings to avoid discussing the trial of the millennium, although he and executive producer Rick Kaplan managed to keep it from being the lead story last night. They said they would keep Los Angeles County Superior Court out of the lead position every day if they could, but sometimes it just can't be avoided.

Neither Jennings nor Kaplan professed to understand where newsworthiness ends and the cult of celebrity begins, even though they work in the news business and are both pretty well-known themselves.

"It's a historical fact of the press - that certain stories come along and just grab us by the throat," Jennings said. "I think it will take a while before people to realize that it (the trial) will go on forever." Meanwhile, people are tuning in like crazy.

Said Kaplan: "It kind of makes you wish for the days when you didn't have so much technical capability."

One of the reasons The Story from Hell did not lead ABC's newscast yesterday, as it did on the other networks, was that Jennings and Kaplan had the good fortune to parachute into some fairly significant breaking stories, by Seattle standards anyway. Boeing announced it would lay off 7,000 people.

Then, a 777 jetliner decompressed during a test flight, almost at the moment Jennings was beginning the East Coast broadcast of "World News Tonight." There was great video from Boeing Field. The layoff story suddenly had a visual metaphor.

Kaplan got on the phone, laying the ground work to make it part of the West Coast feed. "Hello, New York. Anyone there? We're going to try to rewrite page four."

Out in the field

Jennings delivered the news at Kerry Park, standing under a big, white awning whipped by the wind. Neighborhood kids stuck their heads in. Curious adults lingered nearby. As always, his delivery was erudite. Animated but serious.

At other times, however, Jennings demonstrated a quick wit that belies his authoritative presence on "World News Tonight."

For example, yesterday's broadcast included a piece on Seattle's long tradition of swift emergency-medical treatment.

"We are all quite demanding of one another," Jennings said after a quick critique of the East Coast feed of the show. "As somebody was heard to say earlier today, if I had a heart attack on the street out here, somebody from Seattle might save me, but none of these guys would."

Quipped Kaplan: "No, most of us actually are very concerned about sending our children to college, so we probably would save you."

Later, at a taping of KOMO-TV's "Town Meeting" at Bellevue Community College, Jennings hammed it up with John Carlson, conservative host on news-talk KVI (570), who did his best to bait Jennings. Their exchanges brought the house down.

Who won? Judge for yourself on Feb. 12. They both played straight man.

Jennings was self-deprecating in a humorous way but also in an earnest sense. Twice yesterday he 'fessed up to poor judgment when, in a hastily written radio commentary last November, he compared the electorate to an angry 2-year-old.

"People thought I had insulted their sacred mandate and some thought I should go back to Canada," Jennings said at the Chamber of Commerce lunch.

"I hope I don't make that mistake again," he said. "Thank you for having me."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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