The Search for Breaking News
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By Ed Weiner

The Search for Breaking News

News anchors Edward R. Murrow and Peter Jennings both died quickly of the same disease. How much has changed in lung cancer treatment in 40 years?

By Ed Weiner


At the time, in the 1950s, it seemed manly, rugged—even sexy. All the top movie stars smoked on-screen, and it sure didn’t hurt Humphrey Bogart’s image.

And then there was a handsome man, somewhat Bogart-like himself, in starched white shirts and expensive suits, looking directly and intimately at us in our living rooms with that world-weary cast to the knowing eyes and that weight of responsibility worn heavy on the shoulders. He spoke to us in that tone we’d come to know during World War II from his rooftop radio reports through the London Blitz, the tone and demeanor and honesty that had made Edward R. Murrow perhaps America’s most trusted man. And he was smoking, too—all the time. It was his signature, the act most imitated by impersonators and satirists—and, maybe, a younger generation, because how could you avoid the fact that the coolest people smoked?

Those old enough to remember, from half a century ago, probably watched Murrow’s influential and legendary CBS shows—See It Now, You Are There—while many have become acquainted with him only now through last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Good Night, and Good Luck. They have seen that Murrow’s world was one of smoke curling up from his cuff-linked hand, bathing his face and drifting into the air around him, making him a spectral presence in the darkened studios.

Also drifting around him was the growing evidence that smoking was the major cause of lung cancer. But he waved away concerns for his three-pack-a-day, unfiltered habit—which he’d begun in college, after growing up in a Quaker family opposed to smoking—only half-joking when he said he expected there would be a cure before he got cancer.

Murrow was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1963 and died of it in 1965. He was 57.

Almost 40 years later, one of the heirs to Murrow’s throne, Peter Jennings—also a foreign correspondent, an anchor, a host of documentaries, a steady voice at times of national unsteadiness—was diagnosed with lung cancer. He, too, smoked for decades, but unlike Murrow, he quit, only to take it up again after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Also unlike Murrow, whose illness was kept quiet not only by him but by protective reporter colleagues, Jennings announced his lung cancer, with typical aplomb and reserve, to his World News Tonight viewers just one day after receiving the diagnosis himself.

Jennings died four months later. He was 67.

 



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