By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007
NEW YORK, May 16 -- After word arrived Tuesday afternoon that Jerry Falwell had suffered a fatal heart attack, Charlie Gibson was determined not to lead his newscast with the preacher's death.
"It lends importance to a figure whose legacy contained a lot of positives and a lot of negatives," says the ABC anchor, who was once a reporter in Falwell's home base of Lynchburg, Va. "It venerates the subject to an extent that I didn't think belonged there. He was a controversial figure."
There was no right answer -- NBC's Brian Williams and CBS's Katie Couric both led with multiple Falwell stories, while Gibson began with a possible deal on immigration legislation. But the decision underscored the extent to which Gibson is firmly in control at what recently emerged as the top-rated evening newscast.
"At the beginning," says the former co-host of "Good Morning America," "I kept thinking, 'Well, I'm not absolutely certain I'm right.' Now I'm more willing to express my gut."
When he took over "World News" one year ago, Gibson was featured on no magazine covers, appeared in no gossip columns and shied away from interviews. He practically sneaked onto the stage during the media frenzy over Couric's pending move to CBS.
"There was a comfort factor he had to gain," says executive producer Jon Banner. As a substitute, "he had been a guest in someone else's house at 'World News' for years. He did a great job, but it wasn't his chair."
The key to Gibson's success, says ABC News President David Westin, is his reporting background. "The one essential quality a successful evening news anchor has is they love the news," he says. "I knew Charlie had that. He has a wonderful rapport with our correspondents and he conveys that, both behind the scenes and on the air."
Gibson's relaxed style has revived a news division that lost one anchor to cancer and temporarily lost another to a roadside bomb in Iraq. "World News" has led the ratings pack for 10 of the last 14 weeks. Last week, Gibson drew 7.91 million viewers, Williams 7.16 million and Couric 6.13 million.
"The ratings fascination totally puzzles me," Gibson says. "I am amazed at the number of people who pay attention to it and how often people comment on it. Obviously if you get into this, ratings becomes a part of it because it's an important arbiter for everyone. I didn't say to myself, 'Boy, I want to be number one in a year.' We haven't won anything yet. Hell, Brian's beaten us more weeks than we've beaten him."
After Peter Jennings's death in 2005, Westin, worried about breaking up the morning partnership of Gibson and Diane Sawyer, bypassed the veteran in favor of the younger team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. Westin also felt he needed to reinvent the genre by trying a dual-anchor format in which one would usually be on the road.
Only after Woodruff was wounded in Iraq and Vargas became pregnant did Westin call Gibson off the bench.
"NBC Nightly News" remains competitive, with Williams having landed an interview in London Tuesday with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Couric's "CBS Evening News," despite a harder edge under new executive producer Rick Kaplan, recently registered its lowest rating in 20 years.
The oldest of the anchors at 64, Gibson is part of the older generation that remains most devoted to the evening news, although he has also been winning in the coveted 25-to-54 age group.
For years now, network executives have been talking about ways to revamp the nightly news, which has been losing audience share for two decades, in an era of instantaneous information. CBS added several new segments when Couric took over but has abandoned the experiment. What really works, it turns out, is an older guy with a decidedly traditional newscast.
ABC's reporters, for their part, love Gibson's self-effacing style.
"Working with Charlie has been so stabilizing and energizing at the same time," says Martha Raddatz, ABC's chief White House correspondent. "He's one of those people who keeps you on your toes without having a hammer over your head. He'll come back with some really pertinent question about what you've just said, and not in an I'm-smarter-than-you way."
Gibson is a talker. Raddatz recalls introducing him to her daughter an hour before air time and watching them chat for so long that she had to remind Gibson the newscast was approaching. "He's warm and fun," she says, "and how can you not love an anchorman who calls you 'Toots'?"
As a Sidwell Friends graduate who worked for Washington's Channel 7 and later covered Capitol Hill for ABC, Gibson has an intuitive feel for Beltway politics. On election night, says George Stephanopoulos, ABC's chief Washington correspondent, "it was our highest pressure moment, and for me it just felt like I was in his office talking politics. He has that quality that makes you feel at home, at ease and on your game." Before they went on the air, Gibson noticed that his colleague's shirt was untucked, "and he ripped me in front of a good 20 people," Stephanopoulos says.
But Gibson has limited coverage of the 2008 presidential race so far. Wednesday's "World News" was the only one of the network broadcasts not to carry a word on the previous night's debate of Republican presidential contenders in South Carolina. "These debates strike me as crazy," he says. "It gives Rudy Giuliani a chance to whip it up on [Congressman] Ron Paul, but who cares? I just think it's too early. I love politics, and I'm not engaged."
While Williams recently spent several days in Iraq, Gibson has no plans for such a trip. "I don't think there's any particular added value in my going," he says.
More than four years into the war, says Gibson, finding new ways to report on the conflict is a challenge. He is uncomfortable with the media emphasis on daily death tolls and often cuts news items on the latest small-scale bombing.
"That becomes white noise, and I really worry about that," Gibson says. "I almost always take that out of there, and I feel guilty when I do take it out. You become inured to it. It washes over you and you don't really hear it."
One month after CBS Radio fired Don Imus, Gibson, who had appeared occasionally on the show, ordered up a piece on whether broadcasters and entertainers were being more careful about their tone.
"I question whether it's really made a difference," he says. "I have some sympathy with Imus in all this -- not in what he said but in the way he got whipsawed. He was always skating on the edge, and he went over the edge. Do I think the offense was serious enough to warrant losing his job? Yes. Do I think he's worse than many other people? No."
Gibson and Banner say they've caught some lucky breaks, such as Woodruff's return to ABC with stories examining veterans' brain injuries, and Sawyer's reports from North Korea, Iran and Syria. Gibson has taken the show to the Middle East, New Orleans, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Blacksburg, Va., after the Virginia Tech rampage.
He is clearly enjoying himself on the air, as when he wrapped up a report on a group of elderly singers attempting the Who's "My Generation," complete with that band's signature bit of destructive behavior. "They do have to work a bit on breaking those guitars," Gibson said. "It just doesn't seem to come naturally to them."
On the wall of Gibson's office is a baseball jersey signed by Cal Ripken Jr. with the number 19, to signify the number of years he spent at "GMA." Asked how long he will remain an iron man at ABC, Gibson says it depends on his wife, who recently retired as a school administrator, his children and grandchildren, and his energy level.
"Because I didn't ever expect to have this job and I'm of the age I am," he says, "this is my last job. It takes the pressure off you to some extent. The one thing you don't want to do is stay too long.
"I've always had the attitude that the day ABC fires me, I'm going to write a letter and tell them thanks." In light of the recent ratings, "I guess they're not going to fire me."