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Former ABC News president on the state of the news today

Kai Ryssdal May 22, 2012

Former ABC News president on the state of the news today

Kai Ryssdal May 22, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: For those who watch network news — and there are tens of millions in that number — anchors become a little like celebrities. Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams… their faces become a part of the story they’re telling. But behind all the coiffed hair and makeup, there’s a lot of scrambling. Breaking news, who covers what, not to mention worrying about ratings and making a profit. For 14 years David Westin was the head worrier at ABC News. His book about his time as president there is called “Exit Interview.” David Westin good to have you with us.

David Westin: Great to be with you.

Ryssdal: You begin this book with an anecdote that takes the better part of a chapter, but it’s Peter Jennings giving you what I think you would admit is a dressing down over your news judgment, over what to do about the death of Princess Diana in August of 1997.

Westin: Yeah, exactly right. That’s where I start the book. I had the privilege of working with Peter for about nine years or so before he became sick. Peter was a brilliant journalist and his instincts were almost always right, but my first experience with him only about four months into the job — I had decided to do a special on Princess Diana the night that she died, it was to air the next night. And Peter called in late at night and said, ‘David I understand you’re thinking about this special and that’s your right, but if you do it no one will ever take you seriously as the president of ABC News.’

Ryssdal: And as those of of us who remember that will recall, he actually did something with Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer the next day, but it does kind of get to the whole conundrum of are you news or are you entertainment?

Westin: Exactly right. That was the broader question Peter was raising. He called back the next morning and said he was wrong, he’d like to be on the special. I’d already signed up Barbara and Diane, so we did it with all three together. But Peter was raising a much more fundamental and important question about that line between when do you cover something because it’s just really important for history and when do you cover it because people are very interested. That line has moved. I think today no one would question a Princess Diana special.

Ryssdal: How did you see your job as the president of a news division? Were you a news guy or were you a corporate guy whose job it was to fund the news, if you take my meaning?

Westin: Yeah, I think I do. Early on in my time there I understood my job to be running something that’s a business and more than a business. I needed to remind people in the news division it was a business, that we had to be careful about how we spend our money. But also to remind the corporation that it was more than a business because there are times in a news organization like that when you make decisions and invest money that are not — at least in the short term — profit maximizing. Covering wars, covering presidential elections — those are all losses, those are not gains. I was fortunate that the company understood that it was more than a business at the same time.

Ryssdal: So this is now, if you project forward from ’97 when you took over at ABC News to today, having been through that 14 years that you were in charge — it’s a different world. There are different considerations. There are different events. Corporate America is a different place. Can we still afford the news?

Westin: My simple answer would be yes, we can. Although time will tell. I’m reluctant to predict anything. I wouldn’t have predicted much of what happened in my time at ABC News. When I came on board, we didn’t even have a website. We started ABCNews.com my first year there. MSNBC and Fox News were about two or three months old. And now we have an entirely different world. What is surprising is that there’s a lot of great reporting being done by mainstream news organizations, also by some of the new Internet companies.

Ryssdal: I’m going to guess you watch “Good Morning America” when you get up in the morning?

Westin: I do, yeah.

Ryssdal: Were you doing yourself a little high-five when GMA beat “The Today Show” a couple of weeks ago?

Westin: I was really happy. We worked hard at that. We came close a couple of times. We always had little setbacks, but I was really happy for everyone over there. I’m a fan of ABC News. But I was particularly happy for George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts because they really have worked hard and have done a great job and I was delighted that they were there for that.

Ryssdal: David Westin was the president of ABC News for 14 years. His book about those years is called “Exit Interview.” David, thanks a lot.

Westin: Thank you very much.

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