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A Hazy New Day Awaits 'Nightline'
Producers Weigh New Format, Personnel for Post-Koppel Era

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2005

"Nightline" as we know it is about to fade to black.

Gone will be the single-topic examination that has been the ABC program's signature for 25 years. Gone will be the single-anchor format once Ted Koppel steps down Nov. 22. And some of the correspondents and producers who built the program into a journalistic powerhouse will likely be gone, too.

"I'm absolutely committed to 'Nightline' remaining a serious, substantive show," says British journalist James Goldston, the new executive producer. " 'Nightline' has a unique place in American television journalism and it's important that should continue. Of course, we wish it to be an entertaining show, but the journalism comes first always."

The likely new anchors are White House correspondent Terry Moran and "PrimeTime" anchor Cynthia McFadden, who have had serious discussions with Goldston and would be based in Washington and New York, respectively. Another possible anchor is Martin Bashir, who made documentaries about Michael Jackson and Princess Diana, although he may wind up as a contributor.

Goldston made a presentation last week to Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC television, and ABC News President David Westin, among others, and got a tentative green light to pursue his vision of the show, say people familiar with the matter who declined to be named because no final decisions have been made.

Left in limbo, for the moment, are such "Nightline" veterans as Chris Bury, John Donvan and others. They have not been approached about the new program, although Goldston is expected to ask some to stay on. (Other correspondents could be shifted to the morning or evening shows depending on whether Charlie Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas or someone else is named to succeed Peter Jennings.)

Correspondent Dave Marash says he has "been disinvited to join the new 'Nightline' " and is disappointed because "who I am and what I do and how I do it have not changed in the 16 years I've been with 'Nightline.' "

Several producers are likely to join a new company being formed by Koppel and outgoing executive producer Tom Bettag, who don't plan to finalize a deal with another media outlet until they leave. The center of gravity for the Washington-based show is clearly shifting to New York, where Goldston lives and where he is seeking funding to hire more staff.

Goldston, who produced Britain's most popular public-affairs show from 2002 to 2004, as well as Bashir's 2003 documentary "Living With Michael Jackson," has maintained in meetings that he has no plans to dumb-down "Nightline." He has argued that the move toward shorter segments will allow more coverage of foreign news and has talked about projects such as spending a week in Iran.

But Goldston is not averse to more interviews with celebrities if these can be tied to larger issues. He will also emphasize edited, taped pieces in the belief that no one else has Koppel's facility for long interviews done without interruption.

The new "Nightline" has done a soft launch, under Goldston's supervision, by having Moran and McFadden host a number of three-topic programs on Mondays and Fridays. The leadoff piece is usually hard news, but there have also been segments on sportscaster Pat Summerall meeting the family of his liver donor; Christopher Reeve's widow developing lung cancer; the fashion industry discovering larger women; and Rickey Henderson's baseball comeback. Whether the wide-ranging approach will erode the uniqueness of "Nightline" remains to be seen.

Beyond the Big Three

When the media's biggest megastars gathered at Carnegie Hall last week, an uncomfortable question hung in the air: Were they bidding farewell to Peter Jennings or the kind of journalism he embodied as well?

Despite shrinking audiences for the network newscasts, Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who succeeded Tom Brokaw and won plaudits for his coverage of the New Orleans floods, says they are "too important a franchise" to fade.

"When tragedy befalls the United States, when the event takes place that demands our attention, viewers come roaring back to the broadcast networks," he says. "It's the resources we can bring to bear on a crisis that sets us apart. We were able to operate in New Orleans in places where the federal government was not. We beat the first responders. We set the agenda during this particular event. We were witnesses, so we drove the story."

Williams says a long period of reticence by news organizations -- which he dubs "the 9/11 syndrome" -- ended with Hurricane Katrina.

Bob Schieffer, who took over for Dan Rather as CBS anchor, says of Jennings's passing: "We've come to the end of, I don't know if 'era' is the right word, but there will never be another time when three anchors command the attention and have the influence that these three did. One reason is that you now have 200 channels."

But Schieffer remains optimistic: "Does it mean we're at the end of good journalism? I don't think that's the case. We are the most informed people and have access to more information than at any time in the history of the world."

ABC correspondent John Cochran says no one is irreplaceable. "I expect to be in my rocker 10 years from now and there will still be stories about how TV news is going to hell in a handbasket, and it won't."

It fell to ABC veteran Sam Donaldson to acknowledge the demographic reality: "The average age of people watching the news on the three broadcast networks is 60. The average age of Americans is 35. We just can't keep doing this."

For the nightly newscasts to thrive, they will have to make themselves more compelling every week, not just during hurricanes.

At CBS, where Schieffer was tapped as an interim replacement, network chief Les Moonves is enamored of a multiple-anchor format. He has rejected one pilot that featured John Roberts delivering about five minutes of headlines with brief reports, followed by longer features in which the correspondents introduced themselves. Now the evening news staff is working on a new pilot.

Many CBS journalists were demoralized by a recent New York Times Magazine article in which Moonves was reported to have told friends about the news division: "I want to bomb the whole building."

Terminating the Times?

It was no accident last week that the Los Angeles Times was excluded from a round of interviews granted by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Relations have been chilly since the paper reported during the 2003 recall campaign on allegations by numerous women that the former movie star had groped them. But they have gone into a deep freeze since Schwarzenegger, whose approval rating has plummeted to 36 percent, began campaigning for several initiatives in a special fall election.

"I'm sorry to say it but your paper is so deep in the anti-Arnold tank now I think we are wasting our time dealing with you," Schwarzenegger adviser Mike Murphy told a Times reporter in an e-mail. "Can you blame us? Incessant anti-Arnold slant, an op-ed page that is closed to us, and stories where we don't even get called for comment?"

Times Editor Dean Baquet says that "we've been really fair in our coverage of him. I suspect that some stories, from the groping story on, they may have found upsetting. But we cover his policies in a straight-ahead way. We have the most people in Sacramento devoted to covering him."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman traces what he calls the paper's "anti-Arnold mentality" to the groping stories in the campaign's final days, after which "Arnold Schwarzenegger won big. It was a big losing day for the Times."

Stutzman says reporter Mark Barabak wrote a story about a "bogus" group of Latino Republicans criticizing the governor's record in a letter. Barabak says one of them had been the party's liaison to Latinos and "the letter gave me an opportunity to write about sentiments that are quite widespread. . . . The Schwarzenegger people are doing exactly what I'd do in their position -- complain, push back. It works to their advantage because a lot of Republicans believe the L.A. Times is biased against the governor."

The governor's team also objected to a story about anti-Arnold activists, led by a "Dharma and Greg" actress, in which they were not called for comment, and the paper's rejection of an op-ed piece by Schwarzenegger. They were particularly angry that when Schwarzenegger announced he would seek a second term, the subhead on the Times story said he was "providing a media boost to two relatively obscure Democratic rivals."

Baquet says he isn't worried about Schwarzenegger stiffing the paper during last week's interviews because "by and large we get pretty full access to him and his people."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company