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For Gibson, little regret, lots of faith in Sawyer

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009

NEW YORK

When Charlie Gibson decided in August to give up the ABC anchor chair, he quickly got a call from the woman who once backed him for the job while coveting it herself.

"I'm gobsmacked," Diane Sawyer said, asking whether Gibson was sure he wanted to retire.

As he begins his final week on "World News," the 66-year-old veteran is handing the baton to a colleague enveloped by an aura of celebrity that was always beyond his reach.

"I don't like the term star power, but she'll bring a buzz and an attention to this program that I could not," says Gibson, hands folded on the big desk in his Upper West Side office. "That will bring a lot of people in the tent. But do you keep them?"

A conversation with the former Capitol Hill correspondent makes clear that he feels the journalistic culture is passing him by, that the values he came to embody are fading -- indeed, that he is a throwback in a business struggling for survival.

Looking down as he cleans his glasses, Gibson declares his absolute certainty about surrendering the chair -- "You have to trust your gut as to when it's the right time" -- before wavering a moment later.

"You spend your whole life working up to it, and then to walk away from it. . . . Five days a week I think, 'This is really exciting' " to be leaving. "Two days a week I think, 'You're the dumbest idiot in the whole world.' "

He reconsiders: Maybe the split is more even, like four days to three.

Having made the leap from "Good Morning America" in 2006, Gibson knows the transition facing Sawyer, his longtime morning show partner, who finished her decade-long run on the program Friday. He has advised her about the "biorhythms" of "World News," and she has been sitting in on the 9 a.m. editorial meetings.

"There aren't any idle 12 seconds on the program," Gibson says. After the freewheeling morning format, "I think she'll find it something of a shock."

A onetime reporter at Washington's Channel 7, Gibson never expected to be a network anchor, and it took several twists of fate to land him in what people at ABC still think of as Peter Jennings's chair. He was plucked from the Washington bureau in 1987 for his first run at "GMA" and eased out in early 1998. But months later, during a ratings swoon, he was asked to return -- with Sawyer -- in what was billed as a temporary gig.

They did not know each other well but, after a Christmas Eve conversation, agreed to take the plunge together. The duo forged a close working relationship, despite occasional strains during the early-morning grind.

As a frequent substitute on "World News," Gibson grew to want the job, but that was out of the question. Jennings used to tease him that he would retire one day, "but not in time for you."

When Jennings died from lung cancer in 2005, Gibson passed up a chance to succeed him -- foolishly, his friends believed -- in a dispute with ABC News President David Westin over how long he would serve and whether he would share the anchor duties. Westin went with a two-person team instead, but Bob Woodruff was badly wounded in Iraq and Elizabeth Vargas got pregnant as her ratings dropped. Westin decided to replace her with either Gibson or Sawyer -- and she, at one point, suggested they do the newscast together.

When Westin approached Sawyer, she said: "I would love to do it. . . . But I can't. I cannot do it if it's taken away from Charlie." Gibson, who in turn had prodded her to apply, got the nod.

No. 1 for a while

With his solid news judgment and relaxed style -- he closes each broadcast by saying "I hope you had a good day"-- Gibson took "World News" to No. 1, only to lose the top spot to NBC's Brian Williams. Katie Couric, debuting on CBS during the same period, received the majority of the attention but sank into third place.

"I think Diane, fairly or unfairly to Katie, will be afforded an acceptance and support from the, quote, journalistic community that maybe Katie wasn't," Gibson says.

Sawyer is proceeding cautiously, sounding out colleagues about possible changes but determined to move slowly in altering the broadcast. Couric has acknowledged altering too many elements too quickly when she took over CBS's evening broadcast in 2006, and many of the changes were soon dropped.

Soft launch

ABC executives have learned -- or perhaps overlearned -- the lesson of Couric's much-trumpeted debut, which in retrospect has been viewed as overkill. At their urging, Sawyer, 63, is granting no interviews before taking over "World News," just as she did not speak to the press when her new role was announced in August. And taking the anchor desk four days before Christmas, rather than after New Year's, adds to the feeling of an ultrasoft launch.

Sawyer's jump has stirred little controversy because she is viewed as Gibson's logical successor, isn't switching networks and is not the first woman to serve as solo anchor on a network evening newscast. She has repeatedly visited Washington in an effort to get to know some of the capital's players. Among the changes that Sawyer is said to be considering: having less-scripted conversations with correspondents.

One change in Sawyer's portfolio is the likely end of her high-profile interviews with celebrities. When she sat down last month with Rihanna, the pop singer beaten by her boyfriend Chris Brown, the New York Post dubbed it "Diane's Celeb Swan Song." Such interviews, practically obligatory for a morning show host, can tarnish the image of an evening news anchor.

Sawyer's challenge, says Emily Rooney, who hosts "Beat the Press" on Boston's WBGH-TV, "is about rebranding herself" after a decade of morning fare. "I don't know how you force yourself to do the things required on that show and the next month you're a serious-news person again," Rooney says. "She had that aura before she went to the morning show. She kind of lost it. I don't think it will be hard to get it back."

Still, Sawyer is no stranger to the evening format. Rooney, a former executive producer of "World News," recalls Sawyer often filling in for Jennings: "She was always very engaged with the news of the day, very focused, came in early."

Rome Hartman, who was Couric's first producer at the "CBS Evening News," calls Sawyer "more qualified than anybody else in broadcasting to do that job because of what she's done in the course of her career. I think the biggest challenge is that it's 22 minutes. Katie experienced this, for sure. . . . The gender stuff is just a non-issue. Times have changed, and it's a tribute to her that no one even thinks about it."

'Competitive opportunity'

Hartman, now executive producer of "BBC World News America," says the change is "a competitive opportunity for Brian and Katie" because some Gibson fans may be inclined to check them out.

Gibson thinks that while viewers must trust the anchor, a newscast's success depends on its stable of correspondents. He tried to lead by consensus, as he did one morning last week by debating with his staff how much attention to give the Tiger Woods scandal and unconfirmed accounts on the Internet. Having attended Washington's Sidwell Friends School, Gibson likes to achieve a consensus that Quakers call a "sense of the meeting," but recognized early on that he was the "equal among equals" and sometimes the anchor has to make the call.

As a political junkie, the highlight of his tenure was chronicling the 2008 campaign. While he also liked John McCain, Gibson says that for Barack Obama, "there was just a tide of history in the election, extraordinary to behold and to cover."

He recalls the day of Ted Kennedy's burial, when the evening procession crawled toward Arlington National Cemetery and he was left with 90 minutes to fill. It was too dark to see much when the casket reached the burial site, and his producers "were screaming, 'Get off! Get off!' Why would you get off when you've just done this hour-and-a-half preamble? So I just stayed on. They can't cut you off in mid-sentence." Gibson felt vindicated when his defiance led to the network airing the dramatic reading of the late senator's letter to the pope.

By the time he reached his decision in July -- Westin asked him to spend a month reconsidering -- Gibson was anxious to join his wife, Arlene, a former private-school administrator, in retirement. He still jumped when the phone rang at home, thinking maybe he was about to be dispatched to another hot spot. He felt he had accomplished his main goal: stabilizing the news division after the tragedies that befell Jennings and Woodruff.

On a more prosaic level, Gibson is feeling his age, with its inevitable aches and pains. "I'm whipped on a Friday night," he says. "I'm not as sharp as I once was, and I don't want to stay too long. . . . It's good to leave when your elevator is up on a high floor and not on a low floor."

But it's not just about him. Gibson worries whether broadcast networks will be able to support sizable editorial staffs in an era of declining audiences, when cable news channels are louder -- and more profitable. "Objectivity -- or the extent to which we strive for objectivity -- is less of a marketable commodity," he says. "People seem to want to hear news presented according to their own beliefs, and I don't understand that.

"I'm so much of a traditional, over-the-air broadcaster. I'm aware that it's changing, and I'm not adapting fast enough with it. Having hit the perfect arc of this business, I think it's time to move on."

Morning debut

As if they didn't have enough to do covering the White House, Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie are launching a 9 a.m. program for MSNBC.

"It fits the rhythm of our day," says Todd, who also blogs, tweets, reports for NBC and serves as its political director. He sees the "Daily Rundown" as "something that has the feel of a signature Washington show for us" heading into 2010. "We're not going to ignore the water-cooler story of the day, but we're not going to dwell on it, either."

Both insist the extra work won't diminish their reporting, and the plan is for one of them to anchor from the road when President Obama is traveling. "Chuck and I have a great relationship, and we're hoping it will translate on the air," Guthrie says. "It's a matter of making all the pieces fit together."

Todd, who was passed over for "Meet the Press" in favor of David Gregory, chuckled when asked if he was fully prepared to be a host. "I've been in TV all of 2 1/2 years," he says. "Every day's a learning curve."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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