Q and A: Ann Arbor's David Westin reflects on time as head of ABC News in new book
By Alice Burdick Schweiger For AnnArbor.com
In his new memoir, "Exit Interview" (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Westin recalls his years at the helm of ABC News, the memorable decisions he had to make and his biggest challenges. He also reveals what went on behind-the-scenes of breaking news stories.
Westin, 60, had to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Roone Arledge, who had been in the chief position for 20 years. What’s more, Westin didn’t have a background in journalism. In fact, this was his first journalist job. He jumped from being a corporate lawyer in Washington DC, to general counsel at ABC, to head of the network to head of their news divisions.
He oversaw the evening "World News Tonight," "Good Morning America," "20/20," "Nightline" and "This Week." Under his leadership, significant news happened in the world— the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Bush-Gore 2000 election, the war in Iraq, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina.
Westin’s journey didn’t begin in New York City—it began in Ann Arbor, where he was raised. Born in Flint, Westin’s family moved to Ann Arbor when he was starting the 9th grade. He went to Tappan Junior High for a year then Pioneer High School. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan in 1974 and law degree at U-M in 1977.
Westin, who is married to Sherrie Rollins and has four children and a stepdaughter, resigned from his position at ABC in 2010. He left behind a stronger news division. In a recent interview, he talked about his life in Ann Arbor, path to his coveted network position, conflicts during his tenure and recruiting super stars in TV news.
AnnArbor.com: What were your career aspirations when you were growing up? And were there any teachers at Pioneer who had a big influence on you?
Westin: I played oboe in the band and orchestra at Pioneer and Victor Bordo, the legendary band director, was a very large influence during my high school years. When I was in high school I wanted to be a musician and my first year at Michigan I was an oboe major at the music school on North Campus. But I concluded that I could be a good oboist not a great one and there were other things that I was interested in, so I took two classes on the main campus the second semester of my freshman year. One of them was a philosophy course, which I loved, so I switched to L S & A and became a philosophy major. I wanted to get a PhD in philosophy but my advisor said there are no jobs in philosophy and persuaded me to go to law school. I never took any journalism classes.
AnnArbor.com: How has growing up in the Midwest influenced your professional career? Westin: I think of myself as a Midwesterner and more importantly a Michigander and that has influenced me throughout my career. I think there are certain values and ways to approach people and situations that you get from the Midwest that are distinctive. There is a common sense, level headedness, modesty and approachability that you get from Midwest values. I am very proud of the fact that I come from Michigan.
AnnArbor.com: Were you a big Michigan sports fan and do you go back for any of the games?
Westin: You have to be a big football fan if you come from Ann Arbor. I remember the glory days of Bo Schembechler. I would go to all the home games no matter what the weather was like. Last year I took my kids to the homecoming game when we played Purdue—we all had such a wonderful time.
AnnArbor.com: You write in your book that it wasn’t until you were in your mid-20s that you thought about working in journalism, and that was after you became a lawyer. What happened that sparked your interest?
Westin: I was clerking for Justice (Lewis) Powell at the Supreme Court in Washington DC and there was a case he asked me to work on with him. It was about a young reporter in Upstate New York who had been excluded from a pretrial proceeding. It was a hearing to determine whether to suppress a confession and the judge excluded all the reporters from the courtroom, and they brought a lawsuit. It went to the Supreme Court to see if it was their constitutional right for the press to cover the pretrial proceedings. I was working on that and it caused me to read a great deal about first amendment law and the role of the press in our society.
AnnArbor.com: After clerking in both New York and Washington DC, you landed a job at a law firm in DC specializing in Washington regulatory issues, where you worked for 12 years. But how did you go from lawyer to head of a powerhouse news station?
Westin: I got a call almost out of the blue. I had been a partner for about seven years at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and someone who had been my partner had moved to New York to be general counsel for Capital Cities, the parent company of ABC. He called me and said he was stepping down and they would like me to come to NY and talk about succeeding him. About three weeks later, February 1991, I got the job and became general counsel. I had 45 lawyers working for me but I had no background in communications. We advised ABC News on legal issues and I encountered all sorts of issues that journalists confront every day. I had good people to work with and it was a wonderful company.
AnnArbor.com: How long were you there before they asked you to run the network?
Westin: I was there about 2 and a half years as general counsel when Thomas Murphy and Daniel Burke (the president and chief executive of Capital Cities) came to me and asked to go over to the business side. The first year I worked in LA supervising in-house productions of dramas and sitcoms. Then I became the president of ABC television network, and later head of ABC News. I demoted myself on the organizational chart from president to head of ABC News because it was a more important and prominent job.
AnnArbor.com: In your book you talk about the first pressing dilemma you encountered. It was late at night when you heard that Princess Diana died and you wanted to do a primetime special, but you spoke to Peter Jennings and he warned you it was a terrible mistake and said if you did, “no one will ever take you seriously as the president of ABC News.” But your sister Rebecca, a geriatric nurse back in Ann Arbor, had followed every detail of Diana’s life and using that as a barometer, you went ahead and did the special. Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters were assigned to anchor it. Peter, who had a change of heart by morning, became the third anchor to cover the two-hour special titled “Diana, Princess of Wales: The Royal Tragedy.” When did you realize it was the right decision?
Westin: I had to make the decision in the middle of the night. I couldn’t call Rebecca at that hour, but I thought in my mind Rebecca follows this and I don’t think she is unusual, and if she’s interested, others will be as well. I told that to Peter but at the time he disagreed. I called Diane and Barbara during the night and they said they would do it. Peter re-thought it and in the morning called and said he changed his mind. The ratings were very good and people tuned in and were very interested. It was definitely the right decision.
Westin: It’s hard to pick one—there are various things I am proud of. The millennium coverage was great and our decisions throughout the 9/11 coverage were important. At the end it all comes down to the people I recruited, such as George Stephanopoulos to be full time at ABC News and making him into an anchor. Also it was a smart move hiring Robin Roberts, Jake Tapper and Martha Raddatz, among others.
AnnArbor.com: What was behind your decision to put Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson at the anchor desk of "Good Morning America"? Did they accept without hesitation?
Westin: It took a couple of months to persuade them to do it. GMA was really faltering when I took over. It was falling in the ratings, sometimes third, not even second. There were a lot of problems behind the scenes and after spending a month thinking about it, I concluded we needed to put two of our very best anchors in there. Charlie had done the program before and we knew he would do a good job, and Diane was a huge figure in television journalism. She had done evenings for some time. Diane has a wide range of interests and talents and I thought they would be a powerful pair.
At first when I approached them they had a lot of questions, and initially they committed for short term. But Diane ended up being there for 10 years. In retrospect it was a very good move. GMA went up 10 percent in the ratings the first day they went on the air. And thank goodness they were there for 9/11—people needed to see the very best anchors that day, people they trusted, and Diane and Charlie did a superb job. AnnArbor.com: How difficult was it to cover 9/11, staying on the air for 100 hours?
Westin: It was very difficult; technically it was hard getting people into position and out of harm’s way, making sure they were safe. You didn’t know where the next surprise was going to come from or how to cover it or verify what was really going on. And it was emotionally difficult for everyone in the country and that included the journalists. Particularly being in New York and Washington, seeing in person what was going on, was very hard. But we all had to do our best to keep everyone informed.
AnnArbor.com: How did you find out Peter Jennings had cancer? When Peter told you, did he realize what little time he had left?
Westin: Peter and I were scheduled to go together to a press event in San Francisco. Peter had this cough he had trouble shaking, and he came to my office to tell me that he wouldn’t be able to come to the conference because he went to the doctor and they found a lymph node and wanted to do a biopsy. When the final tests were in I called him from the airport in San Francisco and he told me they got the results back and it was lung cancer. We all knew how serious it was. He fought till the very end, thinking he could beat it, but was an uphill battle. It affected his voice and when he announced on the air he had cancer, it was a taped piece, because his voice was so bad. That was the last time he was seen on TV. He died 5 months later.
AnnArbor.com: Is it hard distinguishing between what’s news and what’s entertainment?
Westin: Yes. It’s a line that moves and is difficult to draw. I always thought we had to do good serious journalism and find ways to make it interesting. Most importantly, there is a line and it’s a question we ask ourselves in the newsroom all the time—are we doing this because it’s news or because it’s entertainment?
AnnArbor.com: Why did you leave ABC News?
Westin: I had done it short of 14 years and I felt it was time to move on and do other things like write a book. I thought it was time to pass the baton. I saw too many people stay too long and I wanted people to say he left too soon, not the other way around.
AnnArbor.com: After you left ABC you were CEO of NewsRights, a start-up digital news agency that licenses content from newspapers to other websites. Are you still with the company?
Westin: I am now an adviser with the company. Its basic goal is to develop ways to license original news reporting into the internet.
AnnArbor.com: What do you hope people will walk away with from reading your book?
Westin: A better understanding of what goes into television news and what goes on behind the scenes, so they can be more informed and appreciate the good things and criticize the bad. In my book I intended to be straightforward—there are great things we did and mistakes that we made. I also wanted the audience to be more discerning in what they watch. I’d like them to think hard what they are seeing and ask themselves “is this news or entertainment” and seek out the greatest journalistic work that’s being done.