By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009
When Diane Sawyer was approached last Thursday about taking over for Charlie Gibson as ABC's evening news anchor, her first words were about her friend and former broadcast partner.
"Can't we talk Charlie into staying?" Sawyer asked ABC News President David Westin over lunch in his fifth-floor Manhattan office.
After Westin assured her that he had tried and failed to persuade the 66-year-old Gibson not to retire at year's end, Sawyer agreed to give up her high-profile perch at "Good Morning America" and become the face of the network's news division in January. Westin, who recounted the exchanges, got the news on his cellphone Tuesday night while dining with his family at the 79th Street Boat Basin.
Sawyer, 63, considered making a run for the anchor job in 2006 but instead encouraged Gibson, then her co-host on "GMA," to seize the opportunity, concluding that it was his turn. Now it is her turn, and Westin never considered anyone else.
When Gibson first approached him earlier this summer to talk about stepping down, Westin said shortly after ABC made the announcement Wednesday, "I certainly expressed to him my view it was quite likely that Diane would be the successor."
The move means that two of the three network anchors will be women, a barrier that was broken three years ago when Katie Couric, 52, joined CBS, becoming the first female solo anchor of one of the Big Three newscasts. "What Diane should do is send Katie a bouquet of flowers and say thanks for getting there first and taking the grief that you really didn't deserve and that now I won't have to take," said Rome Hartman, Couric's first producer at the "CBS Evening News."
The decision leaves a sizable void at "Good Morning America," where Sawyer's star power will be hard to replace in picking a co-host for Robin Roberts. "We have a very strong team," Westin said, "and we have enough time to think hard about what is the right answer. Diane is quite a powerful figure. It's not just replacing a person. . . . It's a very tough piece of casting, without a doubt."
The question facing ABC is whether to elevate Chris Cuomo, the program's news anchor, who also serves as a roving correspondent and is the son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo. Other alternatives would be to tap someone else at ABC or import a big-name star from outside, as "Today" did in replacing Couric with Meredith Vieira.
Sawyer, a onetime press aide in the Nixon White House who began her television career as a Louisville "weather girl," brings an extraordinary résumé to her new post. She is a former "60 Minutes" correspondent who has interviewed every president since George H.W. Bush and co-hosted "Primetime Live" and "20/20." She is a morning host who has interviewed celebrities from Michael Jackson to Britney Spears, but has also done documentaries on North Korea, women in Afghanistan and poverty in Appalachia. She is married to director Mike Nichols.
Mindful of the overwhelming hype that surrounded Couric's jump from the "Today" show to the CBS anchor chair, Sawyer and Gibson are granting no interviews for the moment, and Gibson did not mention the news on Wednesday night's broadcast. "There is no one like Charlie Gibson," Sawyer said in a statement, "and it is an enormous honor to be asked to join the terrific broadcast he and the great team of journalists have built at 'World News.' " She also praised the "incredibly smart, talented and dedicated team" of Roberts, Cuomo and Sam Champion at "GMA."
Although nightly news ratings have been declining for two decades and the morning shows are more profitable, network anchors still command considerable prestige and lead the coverage of disasters, political conventions and other breaking-news events.
Gibson is completing a three-year run in which he brought stability -- and a solid second-place finish -- to "World News" after the death of longtime anchor Peter Jennings. A onetime Capitol Hill correspondent with a calm demeanor -- he signs off by saying, "I hope you had a good day" -- Gibson drew on his Washington experience in sharpening ABC's political coverage. His broadcast was often No. 1 for a period of months until he lost the lead to Brian Williams and "NBC Nightly News."
"It has not been an easy decision to make," Gibson told his staff in an e-mail. "This has been my professional home for almost 35 years. And I love this news department, and all who work in it, to the depths of my soul."
Gibson, who once planned to leave the network in 2007, has been thinking about stepping down since his wife, Arlene, retired as a private school administrator. About two months ago, Westin said, Gibson approached him and said he wanted to finish out the year and then spend more time with his family, perhaps continuing as a part-time contributor. Westin wanted Gibson to stay on and said they should continue discussing the matter over the summer.
On Aug. 25, when Gibson said he had solidified his decision, Westin told him: "We've reached the point where I have to respect your wishes."
Gibson achieved two of his main goals, beefing up "World News" and leading the coverage of a presidential campaign. "The program is now operating at a very accelerated, but steady, cruising speed," he told his staff, "and I think it is an opportune time for a transition -- both for the broadcast and for me. Life is dynamic; it is not static."
After Jennings died of cancer in 2005, Gibson withdrew as a candidate for the anchor job when Westin refused to give him a three-year commitment. Instead, Westin fielded the anchor team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, a pairing that fell apart when Woodruff was badly injured in a bombing attack in Iraq and Vargas became pregnant.
Months later, with the "World News" ratings dropping, Westin asked Gibson to serve as Vargas's co-anchor but he declined, saying it should be a solo job. Westin had serious discussions about the post with Sawyer, who said she would love to anchor but could not do it if the job was taken away from Gibson. A delicate dance ensued as Sawyer and Gibson urged each other to pursue the position, with Sawyer at one point suggesting they share the anchoring duties.
Sawyer had one other hesitation: She feared the media would portray her as being in a journalistic catfight with Couric, who had just jumped from NBC to CBS. In the end Sawyer stepped aside, and in May 2006, ABC announced that Gibson was replacing Vargas on the broadcast.
"We had gone through a terrible period, and he was able to steady the ship in a short period of time," Jon Banner, the newscast's executive producer, said of Gibson. Describing an anchor who was always asking about staffers' children, Banner said: "He's a true gentleman and just a fantastic broadcaster."
The friendship between Sawyer and Gibson -- who last worked together moderating a health-care forum with President Obama -- dates to 1998, when both agreed to fill in at the floundering "GMA" in a temporary assignment that became permanent.
The Sawyer move could shake up the evening news race. Williams has drawn an average of 8.7 million viewers this season, Gibson 7.8 million and Couric 6.1 million. Hundreds of thousands of CBS viewers defected after Couric took over for Bob Schieffer, and she concluded that some were uncomfortable with a female anchor.
"Diane is one of the hardest-working people I know and this new assignment is the latest achievement in an already accomplished and illustrious career," Couric said in a statement in which she also expressed her admiration for Gibson. "And as I did, I'm sure she'll quickly find that she doesn't miss that early morning alarm clock."
"GMA" has been in second place for more than a decade, averaging 4.3 million viewers this season. "Today" leads the pack with 5.4 million viewers, while CBS's "Early Show" draws 3.1 million.
Hartman said that Sawyer's résumé is "remarkable" but that she may still face criticism in the new time slot. "It's a rougher transition for women than it is for me," said Hartman, now executive producer of BBC's "World News America." "Her choices will be more scrutinized. She's done a lot of tabloid stuff over the years, and people will have their antennae up for that."