The Late Riser

Charles Gibson is the new anchor of ABC's
Charles Gibson is the new anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight," replacing the injured Bob Woodruff and pregnant Elizabeth Vargas. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Charlie Gibson is strolling around the set of "Good Morning America," away from the cameras, when an aide to celebrity animal trainer Jack Hanna scurries over bearing a furry creature clinging to a gnarled stick.

"This may be the last time," Gibson announces, greeting his old friend Hanna with a bear hug.

The segment begins and Hanna is soon cradling an alligator, allowing Gibson to assume the role of nervous host: "Would you hold it with two hands, please?" And moments later he pointedly declines an invitation to feed worms to the slow loris, wiggling on the stick.

It's a safe bet that Gibson won't be bringing any cute animals onto the set of ABC's "World News Tonight," where he assumed the anchor chair three weeks ago. That night, he reported on Iraq war planning, a Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty, surging crime rates and a tropical storm threatening Florida -- a far more serious diet than the high-calorie smorgasbord that is morning television.

Clearly, Katie Couric's switch from "Today" to the "CBS Evening News" has generated far more debate, in part because of her status as the first woman taking over one of the Big Three newscasts. But Gibson, who recently became a grandfather when one of his two daughters had a son, simply doesn't generate polarizing arguments. He is a comfortable, easygoing figure who filled in so many times for Peter Jennings over the years that it seems perfectly natural to find him as the face of a news division where he has worked for 31 years.

Indeed, the one controversy surrounding Gibson's anointment is not whether a man who has covered Washington and traveled around the world has the chops for the job, but whether the previous anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, was unfairly shoved aside in the process.

"This place has been rocked twice," says Gibson, 63, recalling Jennings's death and the Iraqi bomb that wounded Vargas's co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, within the last 11 months. He says he keeps describing himself as an "old codger" because ABC staffers "just want some sense that calm has descended. It's not to emphasize that I'm old, which is stupid, but I just want them to know things are okay. Unless I'm hit by a Mack truck, I'm going to be around for a while."

Gibson is accustomed to competing against Couric. He has spent the last 7 1/2 years, with Diane Sawyer, trying to catch Couric and Matt Lauer in the morning-show wars, and he knows that the press will focus on whether his second-place newscast can stave off a challenge from Couric at CBS and gain ground on Brian Williams's top-rated "NBC Nightly News." But Gibson disdains the obsession with Nielsen numbers.

"I have assiduously avoided knowing what the ratings are for shows," he says. "Some people get paid a lot of money to worry about that stuff. If you begin to broadcast or program depending on what a consultant tells you or the ratings indicate, what the hell have you been doing in journalism for 40 years? If you get too immersed in what you think people want to know, based on ratings, you've made a tremendous mistake."

Gibson insists that "World News Tonight" is not so much about him but about the correspondents, the same self-effacing approach that Bob Schieffer has taken since succeeding Dan Rather.

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