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Gibson, Woodruff eyed as ABC's top candidates

Network likely to seek Jennings-like qualities in anchor's successor

When all is said and done, someone who looks a lot like Peter Jennings is likely to succeed Peter Jennings on ABC's ''World News Tonight."

That might well mean the anchor chair will go to another handsome white man with foreign reporting credentials. Speculation yesterday centered on ABC veteran Charles Gibson, 62, the cohost of ''Good Morning America," and Bob Woodruff, who is in his mid-40s and recently filed a widely noted series of reports from North Korea.

But it also means that, despite dramatic changes in the network news landscape, ABC is likely to treat the post with reverence, rather than tinkering with the format or making a radical choice.

The public, observers say, probably wants it that way.

Yesterday, one day after Jennings died of lung cancer at 67, much has been said about the decline and graying of network audiences and the rise of 24-hour cable news channels. Still, the network broadcasts draw more than 25 million viewers per night combined. And in times of crisis, media watchers say, network anchors become important national touchstones.

''Most days, it doesn't matter" who sits in the anchor chair, said CNN ''News-Night" anchor Aaron Brown, who worked with Jennings for years at ABC and considered him a mentor. ''But on the days when it does matter, it really matters. It matters to viewers that they can come to someone they trust, they believe in, and that was Peter."

Day in and day out, though, the network nightly newscast has shrunk in stature, underscoring the difficulty of ABC's choice.

Gibson, a well-respected network stalwart, would seem a logical successor, said Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. But he and ''GMA" cohost Diane Sawyer, 59, another possible choice, might be too important to ABC on the morning show that has increasingly become the news division's bread and butter.

''Back when Tom Brokaw went from the 'Today' show to 'NBC Nightly News,' there was no question: It was like moving up in status and stature. That's all changed," Jones said. The anchor post, he said, is ''a great job. It's not the iconic job."

For now, ABC plans to continue the substitution rotation it has used for months, with Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas (also mentioned as a possible Jennings successor) anchoring the newscast regularly, and Woodruff and Terry Moran occasionally filling in, said Paul Slavin, the network's senior vice president of worldwide news gathering.

Slavin praised the stable of up-and-coming reporters scattered throughout the network's shows, but warned yesterday not to ''jump to any conclusions" on future postings.

Jennings himself was the product of some radical news experiments: first, an ill-fated stint as 26-year-old anchor of an abbreviated ABC evening newscast in 1964, and later as a member of a rotating crew of anchors in 1978. But in the intervening years, he earned his chops in the field, particularly as a foreign reporter, and colleagues say it showed.

Emily Rooney, the longtime news producer who now hosts WGBH's ''Greater Boston," recalled the depth of Jennings's knowledge during her brief stint as executive producer of ''World News Tonight" in 1993.

''Not that he was a prognosticator, but he really understood world government," she said. ''Africa, India -- he just understood it, and it made him facile in a way that a lot of newspeople frankly aren't."

It's a hard set of credentials for a reporter to compile today, Slavin said. Foreign reporting opportunties still abound, he said, but in Jennings's day, the relative difficulty of communication gave a reporter more freedom; rather than filing hourly updates, he could spend a week in the field before sending back a report.

Jennings cherished his time in the field and encouraged others to follow suit; CNN's Brown said the two had spirited debates about the need for foreign reporting experience.

''We talked about it, and we fought about it," Brown said yesterday. ''He wanted me to go overseas for a time, and he wanted me to go to the Middle East. I said, 'Peter, first of all, you were 28, I'm 46. The business was different. I'll never get on the air.' "

Brown, now 56, was not the only network veteran to jump to the burgeoning cable channels, which offer more bluster and more time for reporting news. Chris Wallace, a former ABC reporter who now hosts the public-affairs program ''Fox News Sunday," said he felt the difference at last year's political conventions.

As he prepared for hourly live reports, Wallace said, he'd look at other network's monitors, ''and it was a bunch of people eating bugs," Wallace said. ''If you cared about news, either as a reporter or as a viewer, the only game in town was the all-news cable operations."

But Rooney said the brevity of a network newscast can give it an authority the cable channels lack. ''I want a digested view of the world at the end of the day," she said.

And perhaps the biggest marker of the networks' continued influence is the way Washington players court network officials and respect network news judgment, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center.

''When Jennings would start with, 'We begin tonight with . . .,' it was a royal 'we' that said, 'This is the news,' " Graham said. ''That's the power."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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