David Westin on Network News in Crisis in ‘Exit Interview’

“I was there when the years turned lean and we had to adapt,” he writes. Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times-Redux

David Westin had no formal training as a journalist, but by the end of nearly 14 years at the top of one of America’s most powerful news organizations, he had managed to learn a few things about the profession, and he shares some of them in his recently published book, Exit Interview. His tenure as president of ABC News, from early 1997 to late 2010, spanned the Monica Lewinsky affair, the disputed U.S. presidential election of 2000, Sept. 11, the war in Iraq, and the first nine years of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. What’s more, it all happened even as the news industry struggled to redefine itself in the midst of runaway technological advances and seismic economic shifts.

Coincidentally or not, Westin has published his corner-office account of broadcast journalism just as Aaron Sorkin’s new drama, The Newsroom, premieres on HBO. Against a backdrop of real-life news stories, Sorkin’s characters debate lofty questions like whether TV news can be simultaneously “good” and “popular”—or, as one of Sorkin’s lead characters puts it, “speak truth to stupid.” Having worked as an ABC News producer under Westin, I’m looking forward to comparing Sorkin’s fictionalized newsroom with my own workaday experience. But one thing seems certain: his characters won’t spend nearly as much time counting pennies as we had to. After all, this is the kind of thing most HBO viewers are trying to escape from.

Westin’s predecessor, the legendary Roone Arledge, was a brilliant TV impresario with a virtually unlimited budget. In an era when TV-news audiences were growing and profit margins high, ABC effectively handed him a blank check to move the news division from also-ran status to No. 1 in the ratings. In addition to launching hard-news pacesetters like Nightline, which aired weeknights at 11:30 p.m., Arledge whipped up the news-and-entertainment confection Good Morning America. To this day, TV producers around the world follow the same advertiser-friendly format: food, celebrities, and health features interspersed with heavy promotion of the network’s coming attractions, along with news headlines at the top of the hour and coverage of major stories as necessary. Revenue from the morning shows’ two hours of sofa-bound matutinal TV continues to provide the bread and butter for all three networks’ news divisions.

By the time Westin took over, the Arledge era was long gone. Cable news was rising, and broadcast audiences were vanishing. The evening news shows at ABC, NBC, and CBS were losing a total of almost a million viewers a year. Westin, a lawyer by training with no background in journalism, was brought in to slash budgets and reform a system that had been run like a medieval court. “I would have loved to have been at ABC News when everything was on the upswing, when they were adding programs left and right and audiences were only getting bigger,” Westin writes. “When ABC couldn’t get out of the way of the money. But I wasn’t. I was there when the years turned lean and we had to adapt.”

Some of those attempts to adapt would be disastrous. In 2000 ABC News sent Leonardo DiCaprio to interview President Clinton for a special program on the environment. ABC’s own reporters resented being passed over for the assignment, and media critics at The Washington Post and elsewhere ridiculed the decision to use a “heartthrob” actor for such an important interview. Veteran ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson urged Westin to issue a statement saying “mistakes were made” and drop the interview. Nevertheless, the program aired—and flopped in the ratings. Westin, to his credit, took the rap. His reward was a profile in The New Yorker that quoted unnamed ABC insiders saying they had “serious questions about his judgment and credibility.” And yet Westin never seems to ask what becomes of a news organization’s credibility when it tries to mix hard news with a preponderance of entertainment-based features—as all the networks routinely do in the morning.

Tragic events helped to postpone that question when Sept. 11 jolted the networks’ hard-news coverage into focus. Westin vividly describes the newsroom’s reaction in the minutes and hours after the attacks: the decisions that were made as information and images tumbled in, the long days that followed as ABC’s Peter Jennings, CBS’s Dan Rather, and NBC’s Tom Brokaw refused to leave their chairs, each no doubt eyeing the others on their monitors, literally anchoring the nation around its TV sets—and without commercial breaks. Westin tells how he and his colleagues decided to stop showing repeat video of the falling towers and the jumpers. (Most Americans evidently agreed.)

A far more controversial call was Westin’s ban on lapel pins. As he tells the story, he learned that anchors and reporters on Fox News were going on air wearing little U.S. flags on their jackets, just like the ones worn by Bush-administration officials in the wake of the attacks. Would ABC allow its personnel to do the same? Westin said no. “I didn’t want ABC reporters wearing part of the administration’s uniform while they were questioning whether the administration was doing its job,” he explains. His own White House correspondent refused to take off his flag pin on air, later telling Westin he was an American before being a journalist. Westin forced him to back down and took heat for the decision.

The Iraq War gave Westin more opportunities to demonstrate his commitment to principle. In April 2004, as the monthly U.S. death toll soared to 135, Ted Koppel and his producer, Leroy Sievers, decided to devote an entire episode of Nightline to honoring the fallen, highlighting the cost in American lives lost. Koppel simply read out the names over pictures of the 721 U.S. servicemen and -women who had died so far. The program drew a storm of criticism for being “unpatriotic” and “biased.” Sponsors yanked their ads, and some affiliates refused to carry the show. The network itself was supportive, however, and allowed Nightline to run far over time into the half hour of entertainment that was next on the schedule.

Despite those achievements, Westin’s concluding chapter bears a grim heading: “Can We Afford the News?” He describes his final year, when declining ad revenues, shrinking audiences, and an ongoing recession forced him to lay off a quarter of the news division’s entire staff. He contends that he made ABC News stronger for the future by embracing cheaper production techniques. Maybe so, but few at ABC News are likely to agree that such drastic cuts truly made them stronger.

And the economic model for network news isn’t helping. Westin was unable to secure a cable arm for ABC News during his tenure, and without that now indispensable appendage, ABC News can’t help being outearned by NBC, CNN, and Fox. Westin’s successors may have more luck; cable still seems to be the best way to sustain a TV-based news division these days. But that may not last either: as the quality of the Internet’s streaming live news programming improves, the networks may even drop regular newscasts altogether and shift their news divisions entirely to low-cost digital operations.

Exit Interview ‘Exit Interview’ By David Westin. Sarah Crichton Books. 256 p. $27.

Which raises a deeper question that Westin shies away from: why can’t America find a better way to fund one of its most important sources of news? Strong and independent news organizations are as vital as they ever were to a healthy democracy. Some of the world’s best news organizations are not commercially funded at all. BBC News is funded by a government-levied license fee, and Al Jazeera in large part by a Qatari sovereign wealth fund. Many European TV-news organizations are funded by a combination of government subsidy and ad revenues. In America, meanwhile, current costs can burn through the deepest of pockets: by Westin’s account, a decent TV-news division consumes more than $500 million a year. No matter what his successors may do, they can be sure of more painful changes ahead.