Logo

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and I would like to thank you all for joining us for our Public Affairs breakfast this morning.

Our speaker is David Westin, who, from 1997 through the end of 2010, was president of ABC News. He will be discussing his book Exit Interview, which is a behind-the-scenes account of the time he spent at the helm of this venerable news organization.

It's no secret that broadcast news has for some time been facing a variety of budgetary, personnel, and technological challenges. Percolating throughout have been several important tests facing the networks, which involve enhancing the brand at a time when Americans by the millions, particularly younger Americans, have so many other options to attract their attention in getting news and information. In addition, as news programs search for new audiences and more advertising dollars, the struggle to preserve journalistic integrity without embracing partisan positions has become even more challenging.

In Exit Interview, Mr. Westin addresses these issues as he weaves stories about major news events that he encountered during his reign at ABC. Whether reporting on President Clinton's impeachment, the contentious 2000 presidential election, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our speaker has always, first and foremost, made clear his concern for a journalist's responsibility to the public for delivering unbiased news. Mr. Westin takes us inside the newsroom, alongside such luminaries as Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Bob Woodruff, and reveals that what may look clear and certain from the outside is often mired in conflict and urgency.

In telling his story, Mr. Westin addresses basic questions about how our news is reported, why information is important, and why it is necessary to adapt to changing circumstances. Journalists, he argues, must find the truth and tell it. They must never lose sight that the main purpose of news is to provide citizens the information needed to make informed decisions about their lives and our common interests. News is what makes democracy work.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, David Westin. Thank you for joining us.

Remarks

DAVID WESTIN: Thank you, Joanne, for that very gracious and complete introduction. That's a perfect description of what I was trying to do in this book. I hope you will all take a look at it and let me know whether you think I actually accomplished that, because it's just what I wanted to do.

It's a great honor to be here as part of this distinguished series that you have. As I look around the room—some of you I know pretty well and some are new friends—it strikes me that this is exactly the audience I was writing the book for. I was writing the book for people who care about the news; both care what's in the news and also care how the news is being covered and who is covering it. So I think you are my people. At least that's my hope.

I wrote this book because I had an unusual experience that I wanted to share with people. The unusual experience was, of course, being the head of ABC News for just shy of 14 years, but on top of that, coming to it from outside of journalism. My first job in journalism was running ABC News, which is not a typical route to it, which had certain challenges attached to it, a certain degree of skepticism from within the newsroom and from the journalism community more broadly, and a fairly steep learning curve.

I knew about ABC News fairly well because I had been the general counsel of a company that had represented news and had worked with the news people quite closely, and then I had run the entire ABC television network. News was part of that operation. So I knew the people there. But for those of you who haven't had the opportunity to work inside a news organization, until you're inside it, you really don't understand very much about how it works. So I had a fairly steep learning curve.

At the same time, I believe that my unusual route gave me a special vantage point, because I didn't grow up in the organization, and so I could come in with something of a fresh eye and look at it and ultimately come to appreciate it and what it did and the men and women who worked there in a way that perhaps if I had worked there for 20 years I wouldn't have appreciated.

It wasn't hard for me to find some big stories to write about when I decided I really wanted to tell the story about what happened at ABC News. As I wrote in the preface of the book, when I first went there, it was early 1997. I started in March of 1997, but I really started thinking about it seriously in about December of 1996.

If you think back to that time, it was a fairly quiet time in history. This was after Fukuyama had written The End of History and the Last Man, and there was a big debate about whether geopolitical conflict was over because the Soviet Union had dissolved and we had American hegemony and things were going to be decided by treaties and by commercial agreements. One of the biggest challenges we had was the then-dot-com bubble in the late 1990s. One of the early issues was people leaving ABC News to go off for stock options at some startup in Silicon Valley. So it looked like it was going to be a pretty quiet period.

Then, in short order, we had the death of Princess Diana, but then we had the Monica Lewinski story and the impeachment of a president for only the second time in history, the first-ever trial in the Senate of a U.S. president, followed by the 2000 election, which was, in the end, a tie election that we in network news managed to get wrong twice in one night, which is not easy. We called it first for Gore and then for Bush. That was an experience. I got to testify in front of Congress on that. Then, of course, 9/11 happened, with the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So it was a time that was full of historical events that we were called upon to cover.

Through that, in working with my colleagues and making decisions and participating in decisions, I learned a very, very great deal about what a serious news organization does when it tries to cover these sorts of stories. Sometimes it does it right. Sometimes it falls short. It's too difficult, complicated, too fast-paced to get every call right, by any means. But as important, I think, are what the goals and the principles were and what we were trying to do, which I think it's important for people to understand and know. Also I think it's particularly important as the world has changed and we go forward into the new media landscape.

The first big breaking story that I was involved in was the death of Princess Diana. I had been there about four-and-a-half months. It was late August of 1997, if you remember, Labor Day weekend. Most of the senior staff was dispersed, was off somewhere. I was at home up in Westchester. I got a call from the desk, which is the way most of those things—we had some people who were at the desk. They were the people who would call at home in the middle of the night or on the weekend or something and say, "Something has happened." It usually was not good news.

But I got a call saying, "There has been some sort of a car accident in Paris involving Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed"—whom we knew something of just because she had had sort of a whirlwind romance, if you remember, for the three months or so before that—"and she may have been injured. We're not sure."

As often in the way these things develop, there's a series of updates that are all over the map. She's injured or she's not injured. She injured her leg. No, she injured her arm. Dodi Fayed is dead. No, Dodi Fayed is not dead.

That's the way the first information comes in, and you're not sure. We were doing what we call special reports, which are live reports to the full network, intermittently with our weekend anchor, Kevin Newman. I concluded late in the afternoon that this was enough of a story and it was a little bit suspicious how the information was trickling out—I thought it felt a little bit like someone was trying to manage it —that I went into the newsroom and I said, "I think she may well be dead, and they're just not telling us because they want to try to get their own act together about how they want to make this major announcement."

After checking out what we had—we had some resources, particularly radio resources, in Paris, we had a substantial London bureau at that point, so we had people in London, and we had some people in New York to cover. So we were pulling together resources to figure out how we could report on the story, still doing special reports every hour or so.

One of the things I did was, I said, "Let's get ready for a primetime special tomorrow night, because if, in fact, it turns out she's dead, I think we will want to put a primetime special on."

As you all know, primetime is the gold coast in network television. It's that 8:00 to 11:00 East Coast time period where typically they air entertainment programs, where a lot of the money is made. So you go into primetime somewhat reluctantly. The network is reluctant to give you that time because it's forgoing other money.

But I said, "We should get ready for a primetime special." Bear in mind, we had, like, 24 hours to get this ready. To put together a full hour or more from scratch, with all of the video you have, the reporting you have, the writing you have, the editing you have, in 24 hours is a big feat, so you need to get going. So I called in some people and they started working on the special.

As the evening progressed, there was the announcement—it ended up coming, not from the palace, actually, but from the hospital in Paris—that she had died. Then we went into full special reports and just stayed on the air. So we were on the air live, with Kevin at his anchor desk. The call came in from Peter Jennings, who had caught up with the story from his long weekend away. I took the call at the news desk, just off-camera from where Kevin was live, broadcasting.

Now, remember, I'd been in the job four and a half months, this was Peter Jennings, and Peter had some skepticism, I think it's fair to say, about me.

One of the Peter's great strengths is that he was always skeptical about just about everything. It made him a great journalist and often made him spot-on when other people were going for conventional wisdom.

As an aside, later, Peter was the one that I remember in the newsroom who expressed skepticism about weapons of mass destruction [WMD] in Iraq. He and I, ironically, more than once had the discussion in the lead-up to the war, when we were talking about how we would cover it and what the plans were for the military and how it would work out. More than once, I would say, "Whatever happens, if we go in, we will find WMD." Bear in mind, we were at this point getting reporters ready to go as embeds, and they had all of their gear, their chemical suits and things like that that they were drilling with. We really believed it was there.

There were lots of sources, lots of credible sources, that said there were weapons of mass destruction. So it's not like we didn't report straight.

But every time, Peter would say, "Don't be so sure, David."

Peter was skeptical. I think we all would have been better off if we had followed his skepticism, not because he knew something that we didn't know, but he knew a lot about the world, he had covered a lot of stories, he knew just to generally be skeptical, and he particularly knew that part of the world. He knew that nothing ever was as it seemed. So I wish I had followed him there.

But this time Peter had a strong view. As I picked up the phone, he said, "David, I understand Princess Diana has died."

I said, "That's right, Peter. Princess Diana has died."

He said, "I also understand you're considering a primetime special."

I said, "Yes. I've got Phyllis [McGrady] and other people in working on the primetime special."

Peter said, "Well, that is your right, but I feel I owe it to you, David, to tell you no one will ever take you seriously as the president of ABC News if you do a primetime special on that woman."

So here it is about 11:20 at night. I'm brand-new. I'm more or less by myself, and I've got Peter Jennings, whom I have enormous respect for, who is a legend in journalism, saying, "Your first major news call is way off. It's just way off."

I gulped. I didn't have a vast experience in journalism to draw on, so I drew on my family. I'm from Michigan.

I said, "Peter, she wasn't a head of state, but I have a sister in Ann Arbor, Michigan who does not read tabloids in general, but from the moment Diana got engaged to Prince Charles, she has followed every single detail about this woman's life. And I think there will be other people who will feel that way."

He said, "I said that is your right. I will have nothing to do with it."

And that was the end of the conversation.

I stayed there until about 2:00 in the morning or so, helping get things ready and getting people in position and getting people on planes and all that sort of thing. But one of the things I did was to say, "We have to find somebody to anchor our special, because we don't have our lead anchor."

So we called Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. They said, "Of course. We'll be happy to anchor the special, no question."

So I went home. I got home at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. The first thing the next morning, the phone rings at home, and it's Peter.

Peter says, "David, I'm in the car. I've read all the coverage. You were right and I was wrong. I want to do the special."

I said, "Peter, absolutely. You are our lead anchor. You should do our special. But I owe it to you to tell you that I already have signed up Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters to anchor the special. So if you do the special, you are going to co-anchor with two other co-anchors."

To Peter's credit, he said, "Fine. I'll do that."

So we ended up airing a two-hour special—not a one-hour special, a two-hour special; we had enough material—that Sunday night, anchored by Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, and Diane Sawyer.

A little twist on it: I went back and read the transcript from the special. Early on in the special, Peter turns to Barbara and Diane and says, "When you first heard this story, did you think it was a big story?" Diane immediately says, "Yes," and Barbara says, "Oh, my, yes."

That was my first real baptism, with a news call with Peter Jennings.

Again, Peter Jennings was a superb journalist. It was a great privilege to have served with him and worked with him closely and gotten to know him really well over the years. He was much more often right than wrong. The point of this story is not that Peter happened to be wrong on that one. If you think about it, even the story of whether you would do a primetime special on Princess Diana today seems quite antique.

Today, there would not be any discussion. At the time, as far as I can tell going back in history, no broadcast network had ever done a primetime special on the death of anyone other than a former U.S. president or a pope. When Elvis Presley died, they didn't do a primetime special. So, in fact, the Diana decision actually was a watershed. It was saying, "Yes, we're going to do that." Today it would never be thought about.

But the much more important point that Peter was raising—and I did understand this at the time—he was asking, are we covering this because this is a really important story or are we covering this because your sister back in Ann Arbor, Michigan really wants to know about it? That was a question that came back throughout my tenure at ABC News. Are we doing this story because it really has overall historical importance and people really need to know this or are we doing it because people are very, very interested in it?

My conclusion, after having dealt with this for so many years, is that there is no simple answer to that question. There is a constant wrestling going on about that. On the one hand, you don't want to simply cover things that people want covered, because that's pandering. On the other hand, if you're not covering things that people are interested in—as I said once to one of our other anchors who said he didn't care about ratings and that I shouldn't, "Then you're keeping a diary; you're not a journalist."

If you're a journalist, you, by definition, think that what you are reporting is so important that you want as many people to pay attention as you possibly can get. You have to care at some point about how many people are paying attention to you.

So it was always a constant battle and a struggle to strike that right balance. On any given day, I could sort of look at what we were doing and say we were too far on one side or too far on the other—this is very earnest, but we're driving away the audience and nobody is watching, or we're going a little bit too popular here and we're not covering some really important things that we need to be covering.

But the important thing that I found—and I think this carries forward to the future—the most important thing is almost not what the answer is that anyone comes up with; it's that they are actually asking the question. The fact that Peter was asking the question was the most important thing, and that we were having a serious discussion about where that line is.

Whether that line has moved or not—and I think it has moved over time, and probably should have moved over time—it's important that there is a line and that people are asking themselves, is this something of real importance that we need to be covering and that people need to know about?

The biggest story that we covered, I think—and I'm not sure how you measure these things—9/11, in my mind, is probably the biggest story that we covered. Everybody in this room has their own personal memories of 9/11 and where they were on that day and what was happening, how they learned about it and how the several days after followed.

I was in my office, actually. I tried to get in by the time Good Morning America started at 7:00 in the morning. So I was in my office watching nine monitors, believe it or not, on my wall—which does, I'm convinced, create ADD. If you have nine television monitors going all the time, it's just impossible not to get attracted by the flickering lights.

We were in commercial break, and I saw the smoke coming out of the first tower, on CNN. That was actually where I saw it. Then we came back and we went into a special report with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, and I watched the second plane go in. Obviously, it was hectic. It wasn't bedlam, because it was very organized. Our desk was superb. But it was a question of trying to find out what on earth was happening, what else was going to happen, because it seemed there for those first few hours that there was another thing, another thing, another thing.

It was either a real thing, like something crashed into the Pentagon, or it was reports from all over the country of bizarre things where we didn't know whether they were happening or not. It was a great challenge just to get our arms around what was happening, vetting it, so that we were not reporting things on the air that were wrong, and at the same time, we were not just saying the same thing over and over and over again.

Peter got into the chair by 9:15 or so. In my way of thinking, Peter was the greatest live news anchor of his generation. There was nobody like Peter live. He knew who he was. He could report on the air, because he was a great reporter. He could filter this and know what to report and what not to report. He knew what to question, even live on the air—correspondents or people phoning in or something like that.

He also and, to some extent, we at ABC News were positioned well for this story, if you can be positioned well for such a horrible thing. Ironically, just a few years before, in 1997, my first year there, we had aired John Miller's interview with Osama bin Laden. John Miller at that point was a correspondent with us. He had hiked with his producer over the mountains of Pakistan into Osama bin Laden's camp and taped an interview with Osama bin Laden. Ironically, one of the issues that came up early in my tenure was whether we would air that interview.

Think back in history. There was a spirited debate in the newsroom about whether this was a serious threat to the United States or whether this was basically a showoff, that Osama bin Laden was simply seeking a lot of publicity. There was a serious debate about whether to air it or not. I'm happy to say we did decide to air it, in part because we thought there was certainly a larger issue about extreme Islam terrorism looming, and whether it was bin Laden or not, he was representative of a larger set of issues.

So we had reported a fair amount on terrorism, on bin Laden specifically, on al-Qaeda, and so we were somewhat prepared for that and knew that part of the story. We were positioned reasonably well, if you can be positioned.

But then we stayed on the air for about 100 hours straight after that. As you know, it was chaos and upsetting and wrenching.

There were two things in particular that I took away from that, beyond what you all would have taken away yourselves. First, one thing that struck me early on was how much we expect of journalists at a time like that. It was obviously a deeply distressing time for all of us personally. We wanted to reach out to our families. We wanted to be with our families. We wanted to try to absorb this and internalize it. And it was a time when you couldn't do any of that. You were going flat-out just trying to do the journalism. The sacrifices people made were quite extraordinary, the commitment and the dedication.

We had one funny story. Chuck Lustig was head of our foreign desk. You may remember the name. That morning we started getting emails at the desk from an unrecognizable email address. It was some funny name like "sexygirl463" or something like that. We kept getting these emails in. We thought, what is this, this person sending emails? It took us the better part of half an hour to realize it was George Stephanopoulos.

George had managed to get down very near ground zero. He had taken the subway, and when the subway didn't work, he got out. You remember, cell phones didn't work. He talked his way into some woman's apartment and borrowed her desktop computer and was trying to report in to the desk desperately, and the desk was ignoring him. It took a while to figure out that was actually George Stephanopoulos out there.

The other story that I love is about a dear man named Hal Bruno, a name you probably won't remember. Hal Bruno was our political director for many, many years at ABC News—a wonderful man and an avid volunteer fireman, which is relevant to the story, as you will hear, dedicated to it. He had retired a couple of years before 9/11.

We had talked a little bit, but we hadn't kept up that much. As the day of 9/11 played out, we had these boxes on our desks called 320 boxes, where any correspondent or reporter from around the world could phone in and go live on your little squawk box and report something. So the 320 was going all day long with somebody reporting something, some rumor or something. About midday, I'm sitting at my desk and the 320 box goes off. It's Hal Bruno reporting in.

I thought, "Wait a second, Hal Bruno retired two years ago. What is he doing?"

What he had done was, when the plane went into the Pentagon, he worked his way down to the Pentagon and volunteered to help the firemen. So he was helping fight the fire and reporting in for ABC News, from retirement. It shows you the kind of dedication that these men and women have. It was pretty extraordinary.

The other thing that came up pretty quickly for me on 9/11 was the issue of what it means to be a patriot and a journalist when the nation is under attack. It came up the day itself in one form. Peter, on the air, I thought quite appropriately, asked where the president was. Remember, the president gave some quick remarks down in Florida and said, "I'm headed back to Washington," and then took off. Then we didn't know where he was. Fortunately, we had Ann Compton on the plane and she would try to call in when they landed and tell us. For good and sufficient reasons, his security detail was saying it wasn't safe to go back to Washington.

At the same time, the nation was waiting to hear what was going on. Vice President Cheney was in an undisclosed location. We had heard from Mayor Giuliani, we had heard from Governor Pataki, we had heard from Senator Schumer, but we hadn't heard from the president.

So Peter was saying, "At a time like this, the nation really needs to hear from the president. We understand it's probably a security issue, but, still, the nation would like to hear." He said this two or three times. The White House went nuts, particularly the political side of the White House. They were furious about this. It got to the point where, two or three days in, I called Karl Rove, because we had heard how angry they were with us and that there would be repercussions.

I said, "Karl, have you actually heard what Peter said?"

He said, "No, I don't need to hear. I heard about it from Rush Limbaugh."

I said, "Let me get the transcript and send it to you, because I think when you read it, you'll find it's really not that objectionable at all."

I sent the transcript to him. I actually have the faxed response, basically saying, "I can see why people are so upset."

The ironic twist on that: Rush Limbaugh ended up apologizing. What happened was, somebody emailed him saying that—Rush Limbaugh was not following ABC News that day. He was not sitting by his television set. Somebody emailed him to say, "Peter Jennings is over on ABC calling the president a coward," which Peter, of course, never came close to doing. Rush came back the next week and said, "I have to say, I did not actually hear that, and I've now gone back and looked at what he said. I apologize. It was not true."

But we started getting pressure early on. One of the things that, to this day, is talked about on the Internet—I think on the third day of the coverage, I was in the control room with the breaking news. Our PR person came up to me and said, "The press wants to know why our people are not wearing American flag lapel pins."

I said, "Well, we have a policy." ABC News had a policy long before I came that said we would wear no lapel pins of any kind. The theory is, when you're reporting the news, you should be reporting the news, and if you start wearing various buttons and things, it will distract people and they will think, well, they must be associated with that organization, or whatever.

I thought about that for a minute. I also, frankly, thought every single member of the administration had a lapel pin on. It has to be the case that we were all patriots that day. We all cared about our country deeply. But the administration wore that thing almost like a uniform. I thought, even at that time, that there would come a time when we may have to challenge the administration, even maybe some aspects of how the administration had handled this, and I didn't want the viewer being confused, saying, "Wait a second. You're wearing the same lapel pin he is, but now you're taking a contrary position."

The final thing, honestly, is that it went through my head, "We have some people here who are not U.S. citizens. One of them is named Peter Jennings. What are we going to do here? What happens if some of our people are wearing lapel pins and some of our people are not wearing lapel pins? Then we'll be attacked for that."

So I said, "No. We're going to stay with the policy."

Our communications person said, "Well, you should know that people, particularly on some cable channels, are wearing a lot of lapel pins, and they're really going to come after us."

I said, "I'm sorry, we'll stick with the policy."

Shortly thereafter, our White House correspondent, Terry Moran, decided to wear a lapel pin on the air. I called down to Washington and said, "Tell him to get that lapel pin off. We're not going to do that." Our Washington bureau chief said, "I think we've got a problem, because Terry really feels strongly about this. You're going to have to talk to him."

So I got on the phone with Terry. We had a very spirited, perfectly fair discussion, in which I explained my position and he explained that this was a time for true patriotism, and he ended up saying, "I'm an American first and a journalist second." That is what he said.

I said, "Terry, whichever you are first, the highest patriotic duty you can serve right now as a journalist is to tell the people the truth and have them know you're telling it to them because you believe it to be true, not because the administration wants you to tell it. Everybody has a role right now. The roles are different. But our role right now is to try to reassure people by letting them know that they're getting the truth, as much as we can find it, unvarnished and without a particular spin of any sort."

I'm happy to say he ended up backing down and taking off the lapel pin, mainly because he was a very good reporter, and I didn't want to lose him. But we had a genuine conflict.

Those are some of the issues and the principles that we came up with every day. In the book I go through quite a few of these. They came up in different ways, at different times, with different pressures.

But the most important thing I want to say is that there are to this day really good men and women in the major news organizations. I know ABC News the best. I'm not saying it's the only one. There are really good men and women, some of whose names you know, some of whom are famous, and some of whose names you will never know, who come in every day and wrestle with these sorts of issues, take them very seriously and try to come up with the best answer.

During my time at ABC News, the news media changed fundamentally. To give you some idea, in 1997, MSNBC and Fox News were about two or three months old. They essentially didn't exist. We did not have a website at ABC—we created it my first year there—much less social media, much less Twitter or Facebook or Google search or anything like that. It was an entirely different world.

The tent that includes the news media has gotten much, much bigger. There is something for everyone now, of every sort. You can get heavily opinion-laced journalism if you want it. There's a lot of that. That has expanded dramatically. You can get rumor. You can get salacious reporting about scandal. You can also get serious reporting to this day.

Not all news is created the same. It's not all the same. People tend to talk about "the news media." It's wrong. There are different kinds. You can search out and find to this day really high-quality, good journalism being done. The biggest surprise to me is not that there is a lot of so-called reporting being done that you would roll your eyes at. The biggest surprise is how much good work is still being done.

Most important of all, I learned that you cannot simply put it on the shoulders of the news organizations or the journalists to decide what the news media is. There are two people in this relationship. The other is the audience. Journalists, even the very best journalists, respond ultimately to what the audience really wants to come to. News organizations have to respond to what people are going to come to. If people want more substantive reporting, more investigative reporting—whatever you want more of, it is there to be found, and if you come to it, you will get more of it.

I used to say to Charlie Gibson, who would bemoan the fact—we used to have these lists of 10 most trafficked stories on ABC News. He said, "Six or seven of those stories are just silly."

I said, "Yes, but three or four of them are really serious. Given the fact that people could do anything they want, we should take some heart in the fact that there are still a lot of people coming to serious journalism."

I really, in the end, wrote the book for two reasons. One is to try to give some testimony for the great people that I got to work with and their deep commitment to what they did, but secondly, going forward, to say there really is good journalism out there. It's up to us increasingly, the public, to figure out the difference, to weigh it, to ask ourselves questions about it, and reward with our time and attention the best of journalism.

If we do that, I think we'll be just fine. We will go forward. Journalism will be fine. It will be different, but it will be just fine. If we don't, then I'm a little more worried about the country. But I'm actually very optimistic, overall, about the possibilities for the future.

With that, I will subside and take questions. Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Allen Young.

In talking about Princess Di, you mentioned something about the London Bureau having a lot of people then. The implication was that there are fewer people today. How much of a cutback has there been on overseas reporting? I assume, if there has been a cutback, it's because of budgetary concerns. How does that impact on the quality of reporting from overseas?

DAVID WESTIN: Excellent question. The London bureau today is a fraction of what it was in 1997, in terms of number of people. Some of that is budgetary, without doubt. It was a big bureau. It was over 100 people in 1997. I believe that, to some extent—not entirely, but to some extent—technology has made possible things that were not possible in the 1980s and into the 1990s in terms of coverage.

There was an infrastructure and a lot of people. It was not hundreds of reporters. It was not hundreds of people going out and reporting things. There were a lot of technicians and staff and things that you needed back then. When you used to travel around, part of the cost of international news coverage was the baggage, because they had all of these huge boxes that they had to take with them—the camera and the audio and editing equipment, all of which has gotten miniaturized.

To some extent—again, I don't want to say it's 100 percent, by any means—technology has made possible more coverage. We actually added, I think, seven positions around the world in new locations, with one-man bands, you might call them, with people who would go out and who could shoot their own material and do their own editing on the Internet and transmit it and appear on camera. So we could cover a number of places that hadn't been covered. They would be housed perhaps with BBC or somebody else or in their own apartment. So to some extent, we could expand our footprint.

The other thing I would say about international coverage is that international coverage really goes up and down with the news cycle. If you include Iraq and Afghanistan in international news coverage—they were, after all, international—we had a lot of international coverage, and we spent a lot of money on international coverage for Iraq and Afghanistan. When those ramped down, we backed off a bit.

That said, let me come back to the elephant in the corner. There is more pressure financially on the big news organizations, print and television, than at any time that I have known. That's simply because, I think, of the splintering of the audience. The growth in news consumption—and there is growth; overall, news consumption is going up—it's essentially all on the Internet and mobile. That's where it is. It's not the more traditional outlets.

So there is pressure. It has been retrenched and it is not what it once was. It has to affect the ability to reach some stories.

QUESTION: James Starkman, amateur news junkie.

The issue of national security and disclosure by the press, particularly as highlighted by the Pentagon Papers and WikiLeaks, is certainly an issue which is a very fine line. Where do you come down on that?

DAVID WESTIN: Again, I talk about this in the book a decent amount. Particularly in the wake of 9/11 and the wars, there were a fair number of instances where the government was making claims of national security and asking us to stop reporting or change our reporting. I took every one of those seriously. I owed it to the audience and to the country to take them seriously.

This is where I came down, in the end. I had some simple rules of the road for me.

If we have something we think may have serious national security concerns, we must check with the responsible government agency, both to find out if it's true and to give them an opportunity to make a claim, if they want to make a claim. If someone makes a claim, I learned pretty quickly, I need the head of the agency—I'm talking about the head of the CIA, I'm talking about the attorney general—the head has to call me personally.

It rapidly became clear that you can have people down the line, particularly in the public communications area—it's almost free for them to ask for a story to be curtailed, without regard to whether it's national security. If they get it killed or changed, then they are a hero. But they are not really in the position. If it's serious enough to ask us to change our reporting, then the person has to call me. I had some of those calls.

The third thing was, on every one of the calls I would say, "Okay, I need to understand exactly what the national security issue is here. Explain to me exactly how the national security would be harmed."

I had one of these officials once say, "It will be an embarrassment for the U.S. government with the local government."

I said, "A lot of what we report is embarrassing for the U.S. government. That's way too broad if that's the national security concern."

But on the other hand, we had an instance where Martha Raddatz, our Pentagon correspondent, early in the Afghan war—it would have been the fall of 2001—had information about a special forces operation behind enemy lines. It was still ongoing. We checked, and it was absolutely true that it was ongoing. They said, "Please don't report that for the next three or four hours because we want to get our guys back out."

As a practical matter, was it likely that the Taliban was watching ABC News and would hear it? No. But was there some chance, in the age of the Internet? Some chance.

So I said, "Absolutely. We can hold that for three hours. No problem."

But the last thing was, besides asking for specificity about exactly how national security would or could be harmed—and I had this debate once with the head of the CIA—"It's my call to make, not yours. Ultimately it's on my shoulders. The government doesn't get to decide that."

He was very upset. He said, "Why do you get to decide that?"

I said, "You don't have an argument with me. You have an argument with the Supreme Court. Go to the Supreme Court."

Ultimately it has to be on the journalists' side to make a responsible decision.

Now, in the new world—you referred to Wikileaks. We just had this—I don't know if you followed it or not—with the report of President Obama going to Afghanistan, which got picked up on Drudge and some other places. I think it was a Huff Post posting originally. There was some back-and-forth because—I don't want to get this wrong. I think maybe it was Gawker [Editor's note: It was BuzzFeed]. Somebody actually took it down. The White House called them. They put it up and then they took it down. Other people left it up.

It used to be that there were a handful of people that the government could deal with. In this day and age, there are just too many ways for it to get out there. I think that's probably the biggest change in the national security equation. Whether I thought it should be reported or not becomes irrelevant, because there's going to be somebody out there reporting it.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Until now, you have given us a wonderful tribute to professional journalists and how concerned they are with the integrity of the news that they are broadcasting. But in the general world, people often say, disparagingly, that news has become entertainment, and the personality of the journalist or the reporter is so important, and that there are enormous egos involved. How do you deal with this situation?

DAVID WESTIN: First of all, I can report that there are enormous egos involved, which can be challenging. At the same time—I'll pick on my departed friend Peter, for whom I have enormous regard and great affection—he wouldn't have been the journalist he was without an ego. Ego in the right place at the right time is important, because it takes a fair amount of courage to pursue some stories and to get on nationwide TV and talk to millions of people and put your reputation on the line.

First, there is a big difference, I think, for the most part, when it comes to personality, between print and television. There are a handful of personalities in print, but by and large, when you read reporting in The New York Times—at least I connect it with The New York Times, not necessarily with the byline. It's the reverse in television, because you are looking at someone and you have the appearance of knowing them. You connect it more with the person than you do with the network, usually. That's inherent in television.

That said, personality in some places, in my experience, is terribly important. In other places it's not as important. It's terribly important in the morning. Historically, the morning programs are driven to some large degree by the personalities and whether they are likable; primetime, not so much. I'll go out on a limb now and say that one of the great strengths of 60 MinutesMike Wallace being the notable exception—is it really has not been so much a personality-driven program. They, as a result, have been successful at putting more people in and having people leave and things.

So in primetime it's not as important. It really depends on where you are in the day.

I also think that one of the shifts—this is a prediction now, so it could be wrong—one of the shifts we're seeing as we go into the Internet and mobile for more of our news is a shift from generalists to specialists. In the days of Walter Cronkite or, for that matter, Peter Jennings, you really wanted a generalist to give you the news in the evening. There's still a role for that.

But increasingly, when the audience is coming off of the Internet, you are going for a specific purpose. It can be politics. It can be national security. It can be investigative. But you're going for names that are in that specific area. Then they appear across a lot of different programs. So I think there's a big shift.

The last point is, the battle about entertainment is a real battle. There are some times that I think people have gone too far. By the way, when I was at ABC News watching my own program, sometimes I would say we had gone too far; we were too far over to the entertainment side.

But the thing I want to come back to—and it's the first chapter of the book—is that the most important thing to me is that there's actually somebody who is taking that question seriously. I get worried when I fear that some organizations just don't care, that they are just saying it's all entertainment; it can be fact-based entertainment or fiction-based entertainment, but it's all entertainment. That's what makes me nervous.

Fortunately, as I say, that has not happened yet. There are still some news organizations that do take it seriously. I want to make sure we reward those so that we continue to have that.

QUESTION: Rita Hauser.

Dave, I want to ask you about the commercial pressures on the networks and on television in general. At one point there were hour-long news shows, when we first began. Now it's half-an-hour, and there are many predicting that it will go to 15 minutes and maybe even less. If you watch the network, which I do, frankly, at the 15 percent mark, I often tune out. After that, it's a lot of fluff.

What is going to be the economic future here? I add into that the new device which you can preprogram to eliminate all the ads which is coming on, and most people zap off ads. Where is the money going to come from to pay for continued networks?

DAVID WESTIN: A very good and difficult question.

By the way, I am flabbergasted at that. Is it Dish that's proposing that?

QUESTIONER: Yes.

DAVID WESTIN: I read about it. You just automatically skip the ads, which is sort of a hostile act to the industry.

Let me start at the beginning. One of the things I learned at ABC News is that you have to care about the business of journalism if you care about the journalism. It's a false dichotomy to say, "I only care about the journalism. I don't care about the business," because it takes money to do good journalism. It requires investing in reporters who have beats and develop sources and develop skills. I believe there's no substitute for that. We have to be able to bring in enough money to pay the journalists and invest in the journalism.

Advertising has been wonderful for many years. I don't see that going away right away. You see, in terms of a broadcast network, a range. The evening newscast still brings in a lot of revenue. People don't understand that. Is it less than it once was? Yes, it's less than it was, but it still brings in a lot of revenue. The morning programs have come up in terms of their contribution, I think in part because when we wake up, we haven't been on radio and the Internet and things like that, so we don't know anything. By the time evening comes, you have been barraged with news all day long, but when you're asleep, presumably you're not. But that has come up.

So it's a balance within the portfolio.

One of the big challenges for an organization that really does try to do good original journalism is how powerful the cable news business model is. Cable came along and, particularly when Fox News went in the opinion direction, increasingly followed by MSNBC—that is a commercially very powerful structure. It's commercially powerful for two reasons. One is, it's not that expensive. You don't have to have a lot of reporters out in the field. You can pay a fair amount of money to a personality to come in and have opinions. It's live. It's not taped. It's not edited. It's actually a fairly inexpensive way to do 24-hour-a-day television.

The second thing is, it may not reach as big an audience, because it is partisan or opinionated, whatever you want to call it—advocacy—and that necessarily turns away a significant part of the audience, but it's a very engaged audience.

People are often surprised. When I left ABC News—I haven't seen the numbers since then—Fox News's primetime numbers were two or three times CNN's. CNN was still reaching a larger audience. It seems like those two things couldn't be true. But the difference is, the Fox News audience came and stayed, and they came back again and again and again. So it was a smaller audience that was spending much more time on Fox News, whereas CNN had a larger audience, in fact, but they weren't spending nearly as much time.

That level of engagement in the cable world, as you know, Rita—you know this well—really is a powerful business model when it comes time to negotiate with the cable company. If you can get 10 or 15 percent of your audience to say, "I will drop my cable subscription if you do not have, for example, Fox News," you can demand almost anything from the cable provider economically. That is one of the big concerns.

The cable news model is not based, critically, on original reporting, when it comes to Fox News and MSNBC. It's a powerful model. My hat's off to them. They figured it out. It's very successful. But it's not based on "let's make sure we have a lot of reporters doing original reporting."

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

It has been an observation in some of the media that we live, in the United States, in parallel universes. Certain people only get their news from Fox News. Other people get their news from The New York Times. There's sort of a debate in the United States, it seems to me, about what serious news is. There was an article the other day that said a lot of people don't believe what's stated in the major media anymore, because they are going to this parallel universe of the advocacy journalism, which questions the integrity of all this journalism.

I wonder if you could comment on that and its impact and its consequences.

DAVID WESTIN: Absolutely. I certainly have thought about this a fair amount. I don't have answers. I do have a question. I don't know the answer to this question. I have a question, which is, how much of this is apparent and how much of it is real?

This is just my hunch. I can't prove it. I have a hunch that what we're seeing in some of cable news, certainly some of the Internet, and some of the politicians in Washington is more extreme than, in fact, what most of the country thinks.

The loudest voices on the two extremes are getting a lot of attention and are making us think—I have said this in other contexts—that the whole country is divided between the two 20-yard lines and the goal lines, when, in fact, I have a suspicion—and there is some research that suggests this is right—that most of the country is between the 40s. But there's sort of a feedback loop that makes us think that we're getting much, much more partisan as a country.

Now, that may be wishful thinking. I've seen some research that would tend to indicate that. It may be wishful thinking, but I would like to believe that's true, and I think there is some reason to. I don't think we should regard necessarily, for example, the extremes of cable news or the Internet as representative of what the people—which isn't to say that people might not go watch some of that or listen to some of that. But it doesn't mean they necessarily share the opinion.

On the other hand, of concern, there was a study done recently—maybe that's what you are referring to—about the percentage of people in the country who think the news media is biased, which has gone up dramatically in the last 15 years or so. I think the number was 77 percent or something like that. It was a Pew study.

Interestingly, in that Pew study, if you read down the study, most people thought their news was not biased. It was everybody else's news that was biased. That could suggest that what you're saying is right, that people are just choosing up sides. It also could be the fact that, as I said, the tent has gotten so much bigger, and so much of that is partisan or niche or whatever you want to call it, that when you talk about the news media, you say, "The news media that I'm hearing more and more about is biased, but I'm not going there. I'm going to more traditional outlets."

I don't know the answer to the question. It certainly is a cause for concern. We have so many problems in this country. If we can't start agreeing on some of the basic facts, then we're never going to be able to solve the problems.

QUESTION: Arlette Laurent.

In the age of globalization, what would you say about the old adage, "All news is local"?

DAVID WESTIN: I've actually always thought all news is local, in this sense. I actually would apply this to international stories, in this sense. You ultimately need to be able to tell the audience what it has to do with them. They have to connect to the story somehow. They have to identify with it. It can be from anywhere around the world, and you might be saying, "But that looks just like my family," or, "That's so different from my family," and compare it with what's going on.

But ultimately, if you are going to engage the audience, it can't be some abstract out there. It has to come back to: "What am I learning from this? What can I incorporate into my life?"

I'm actually a big believer that all news ultimately is local, in the sense that you need the viewer or the reader to be able to identify personally with it in some sense. I always thought the great international stories shared two things. You want to take two things away from every international story—this is way overly broad, forgive me—they're just like us and they're nothing like us. In some ways, they are just like us. On the other hand, boy, it's very different from what anything could be here.

QUESTION: Stéphane Dujarric, United Nations.

I think two years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave ABC almost $5 million to cover health issues. Is that a funding model that you think will be repeated? Did that work? Can you talk a bit about the ethical issue of receiving such a large amount of money from an NGO?

DAVID WESTIN: I think it was $1 million [Editor's note: $1.5 million], actually. I was there when we did that. We had long discussions internally about that.

What happened was, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as part of their mission, wanted to increase awareness and knowledge about global health issues, health issues around the world. So we entered into an arrangement with them where they would give us a grant of $1 million to cover out-of-pocket expenses, like travel costs and things like that, for stories. We had total editorial control. This was all written into the contract. They had no say about what stories we would cover. They just had to have something to do with global health.

We decided to do it because—we had serious discussions internally—this was a subject that we would want to cover anyway. It's not like someone is coming in and saying, "Go over that," and you don't want to cover it. Quite the contrary. We wanted to cover it. We were under a lot of budget constraints, and it would help us cover that. It was all disclosed. We obviously had to disclose.

I thought it was successful. In fact, Diane Sawyer just got a big award for one part of that series. It was over a one-year period of time. I think it was successful, in the sense that I think we got some stories on the air that we would not otherwise have probably been able to do. I thought they were good stories.

Now, whether that gets replicated or not I don't know. I know that some foundations are interested in pursuing that sort of thing. But I thought it was a success. I think they were good stories, and, as I say, stories that I'm not sure we would have gotten to do otherwise.

QUESTION: I'm Edward Marschner.

You are making a great contribution with deep thoughts about the role of journalism and media. I take it your next career move will be expanding even further in a different direction with your current activity, which you haven't really spoken about.

I would like to raise with you—picking up on Rita Hauser's observation—many people will say that mainstream network news is so full of fluff, so cut back in time, so dependent on advertising, cutting into the time even further, that the best way to see challenging information about what's happening in the world is to follow Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, with fake news. I would like your comment on that.

DAVID WESTIN: I think Jon Stewart does a great job, to his credit, because he uses satire and humor to pierce through things in a way that you really can't do with a straight newscast. I think it makes a real contribution. I often learn things from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

Let's go back. First of all, the evening newscast has been historically a very important part of the broadcast news divisions. It is far from the only one. Let's be honest; it has been reduced in relative importance to other broadcasts and, increasingly, to the Internet. To some extent, when people talk about broadcast news, they are talking about that half-hour. And you're right, it's really 21 minutes, when you take out the promotion and you take out the advertising. It has been around there for a while now.

I believe that the evening newscast continues, for a significant audience—7 million, 8 million people for each of the channels—to provide a useful synopsis of the day's news. I certainly see on ABC News some really strong work being done on terrorism and national security and some things like that.

There is an ongoing fight—there was when I was there; there was when Peter was there—about the fluff issue: Do we have too much human interest? Are we going too soft? An ongoing fight. Ultimately, again, it's going to be up to the audience to decide that.

But I personally think it continues to supply something that's useful for a substantial audience, and I would hate to see it go away. By the way, I don't think it's going to go away. I don't see any reason why it should.

But the biggest story overall, whether it's the broadcast news organizations or mainstream media or news media, is that it has just exploded in terms of the alternative. It has atomized. It's hard to talk about any part of it as representative of the rest of it. There is something out there for everybody. I think there's a role for the evening news, but the audience will ultimately decide that. Thus far the audience is voting with their feet and saying, "Yes, there's enough reason to keep doing it, and we find it useful."

JOANNE MYERS: I think it's unanimous that your exit interview went extremely well.

DAVID WESTIN: Thank you all very much.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you. It was really great.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less