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'Exit Interview' Excerpt (Introduction)

'Exit Interview' Excerpt (Introduction)

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Published by: Patt Morrison on May 31, 2012
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Excerpted from Exit Interview by David Westin, published in May 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books, animprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by David Westin. All rights reserved.
I blush today, looking back on how much I didn’t know when I was named president of ABCNews on March 6, 1997. I’d worked closely with my colleagues in news for year
first as their lawyer
and then as head of the network. But I wasn’t a
 journalist. Seeing it from outside is not the same asseeing it close-up, from inside a news organization: how deadly serious journalists can be about theirresponsibility to the public; how deep the bonds are between journalists who have worked togetherover the years through difficulties and dangers; how important curiosity and an eagerness to sharestories are to good journalism
and how those same traits often carry over into the newsroom and fill itwith gossip; how frequently journalists come under att
ack from those who don’t like what they’re
 reporting and how that can make them sometimes come across as defensive. I had a lot to learn.
All of these were things that someone who’d grown up in journalism might have explained to
me. And I might even have listened. But when I moved from my spacious office as president of the ABCTelevision Network next door to a much smaller office in the older, somewhat run-down building thathoused ABC News, no journalist could have predicted how fundamentally all of television news wouldchange over the next few years; no journalist could have known that even as we were trying to respond
to these changes, we’d be called on to cover so many extraordinary, history
-making events.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
The 1990s were supposed to be the time when, in the fatefulwords of Francis Fukuyama, history ended. With the end of the Cold War six years before I went tonews, the United States had lost its only strategic adversary when the Soviet Union collapsed and theBerlin Wall came down. We had moved into the age of American dominance when Pax Americana wouldrule for years to come. All of those diplomatic standoffs and military confl
icts that we’d lived with since
World War II were going to be replaced by treaties and commercial agreements. In March 1997 it lookedas if the news would pretty much be relegated to covering how much all those new Internet companieswould be making for their young founders, mixed in with the occasional scandal
celebrity or otherwise.And then history came back from the dead. The president had an illicit relationship with a youngintern, leading to his impeachment, a full trial in the U.S. Senate, and an ultimate acquittal. Therefollowed in short order a presidential election that took a month for the Supreme Court to resolve; theterrorist attacks of 9/11; the war in Afghanistan; the war in Iraq; the Southeast Asian tsunami; Katrina;the historic election of 2008; and the most severe worldwide economic crisis since the GreatDepression.There was another thing that even the most experienced journalist could never have told me:how much I would come to love it.
I hadn’t given a single though
t to journalism as a profession until I was in my mid-twenties, andthen it came up in an offhand way. I was clerking for Justice Powell at the Supreme Court and workingon a criminal case in which a newspaper reporter claimed a constitutional right to cover a pretrial courthearing in Rochester, New York. The case was a difficult one, with several different theories argued byboth sides. After argument, when the Court met in conference and took a preliminary vote, it was atentative 5
4 vote for the result, but there was no real agreement on the rationale for that result.As I sat with Justice Powell in his offi
ce one day working on the separate opinion that he’d
decided to file, he paused to step back and reflect for a few minutes on journalists and what they do. Ashe saw it, we had to have robust journalism for our democracy to work at all. There was no other wayfor the people to learn what they needed to know to decide on the right course for their town, theirstate, or ultimately their country. But without missing a beat, Justice Powell volunteered that as much ashe thought of journalists in the abstract, h
e personally “could never do what journalists do.” I asked him
why. He looked at me thoughtfully and said in his gentle Virginia drawl: “Why, David. Journalists every
day have to
pry into people’s private lives, asking questions that are really nobody’s bu
siness. And, at
least sometimes, they even misrepresent who they are.”
No, this
something that Justice Powell felt that he could ever do.
Until then, there’d been no reason for me to think about what jour
nalism was all about. I was,after all, looking forward to a career practicing law. But, like so many other things Justice Powell said tome during that year I spent with him, it made a lasting impression. He was a decent, thoughtful, and
wise man. He’d experienced things that few, if any, had exper
ienced: working as a young colonel in thetop secret Ultra Project that broke the German code in World War II; running a major Richmond law firmthat bore his name; leading the Richmond School Board through the desegregation conflicts of the1950s; working with John D. Rockefeller in restoring Colonial Williamsburg; and serving as president of the American Bar Association in the 1960s. You wanted to pay attention to whatever he had to say, even
if it didn’t seem all that relevant to you at the time.
 I went on to join Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, a leading Washington law firm where I worked bothin Washington and in London, first as an associate and then as a partner. By the early 1990s, I wasestablished and headed in the direction I had imagined my career would go when I spent my year withJustice Powell: Washington law, with hopes of some form of public service down the road. Then I wastaken in an entirely different direction; I was asked to come to New York to be the general counsel forCapital Cities, the parent company of ABC. Now, being general counsel was certainly not the same asbeing a journalist. But as my staff and I advised ABC News on legal issues and defended the organizationwhen it was challenged in court, I encountered for the first time the sorts of issues that journalistsconfront every day. I went on to become head of the ABC Television Network overall, and my exposureto journalism expanded, with ABC News reporting directly to me.During these years, the legendary Roone Arledge was in charge of ABC News. Roone had taken
over in 1977 at a time when some people sarcastically referred to ABC as the “fourth out of three”broadcast news divisions. Long before he’d gone to news, Roone had built ABC Sports into a
powerhouse, creating
Monday Night Football 
Wide World of Sports
. Although Roone Arledge didn’t
create the Olympics, he was the one who transformed coverage of the games into the extravaganza weknow today. When Leonard Goldenson, the pioneering head of ABC, decided to make ABC Newscompetitive, he turned to Roone and gave him what amounted to a blank check. Roone cashed thatcheck (and then some) and used it to put together an amazing stable of top news talent and producepathbreaking programs such as
This Week with David Brinkley 
, and
Primetime Live
.Roone was legendary not only for his creativity but also for some eccentricities in hismanagement style. When he was wooing talent, he was more charming than anyone in the business. Hehad a wonderful smile, an impish sense of humor, and a love of life as great as his talent. He was alsonotoriously elusive. For several years when he ran both ABC Sports and ABC News, he kept offices in
both places, and his subordinates swore it was so that it would always appear he was in his “other”
office. He simply would not return telephone calls
from outsiders, from his own stars, or even from hisbosses. You could never reach Roone at home at night. He had an outside answering service that took amessage it said it would pass along to Roone
—but you just didn’t hear back. It was only years later, a
fterRoone passed away in 2002, that one of his longtime friends came up to me at his wake and offered an
explanation. As he put it, “Roone always
figured that if you were calling him, it was about your problem.
Roone didn’t want to hear about your problem; he wanted you to deal with his.”
 Roone was unique as a creator and a showman. He also came along at just the right time inhistory. Roone was made for expansion and big ideas without the need for recognizing limits of anysort
and most particularly not financial limits. Th
e 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s gave him the en
vironment heneeded to demonstrate all of his talents
first in sports and then in news. Roone accomplished what
Leonard Goldenson had asked: he built ABC into the biggest and proudest of the three network newsdivisions.And then everything changed. In 1995, NBC News regained the lead in the morning with its
show. The next year, its
Nightly News
took over first place in the evening news race from
World News Tonight with Peter Jennings
. The same year, 1996, David Brinkley retired and, with Tim Russert at
the helm, NBC’s
Meet the Press
began to beat ABC on Sunday morning as well.At the time, all this seemed cataclysmic. But for those at ABC News it partially masked a muchmore profound, long-term shift: the rise of cable news. CNN had made a name for itself in 1991 duringthe Gulf War. That was one thing. CNN had some success in its own universe but through the early
1990s it wasn’t really
seen as much of a competitor to the traditional broadcast network news divisions.Then, in 1996, the television news world changed forever with the start of MSNBC (backed by NBC andMicrosoft) and Fox News (backed by Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation). And all of a sudden,whether we fully realized it at the time or not, we were on our way from a world dominated by threetelevision news organizations to one with an almost unlimited number of news providers. And with thattransformation would come some prominent news providers who regularly mix opinion with their newsreporting and overtly embrace partisan positions. The world of television news had truly andfundamentally changed.
In the midst of all this, Roone’s contract was drawing to an end. His long
-term deal had himstepping aside as early as 1997 and no later than mid-1998 and moving over to be a consultant to the
company. I was Roone’s immediate boss; Bob Iger was president of the company (which the Walt Disney
Company had bought the year before) and my boss. Bob and I knew that we had to find a successor toRoone, someone who would keep the best of what Roone had created but also fundamentally transformABC News to deal with the changing needs and possibilities of the new media world. I spent months
looking within the news division and outside the company, but I couldn’t
find the person we thoughtwas right for the job.So I volunteered. Bob may not
have thought we’d end up here when we
first started looking for
Roone’s successor, but neither had I. We’d both known that things were shakier behind the scenes atABC News than the outside world knew. It wasn’t only that running a news organization had ne
ver been
on my list of things that I aspired to do; following a legend didn’t seem like a wise career move. But Icared deeply about news and had enjoyed the time I’d spent working with the journalists at ABC. I knewI’d be a known quantity to many at ABC
News, including to Roone. I thought I might at least oversee anorderly transition, get us over some of the challenges I knew were ahead, and pass it off to someoneelse. And so, on March 6, 1997, Bob Iger appointed me president of ABC News.That first day on the job, I began with the editorial meeting that we held every morningthroughout my time at ABC News. Back then, the meeting was held at 9:45 in an interior conference
room near Roone’s o
ffice with muted lights, gray fabric on the walls, and a long mahogany table thathad been the ABC board table before Capital Cities had bought the network. At every editorial meeting,there was a recap from the various bureaus of what we knew had happened overnight or washappening that day, followed by descriptions of what the various programs were planning. As I recall,that March morning
in 1997 there wasn’t
really much news to report. The biggest pending issue was
President Clinton’s ban on cloning research imposed the week before. In the absence of 
major news, ag
ood part of the meeting was devoted to two things: Roone’s introducing
me to the troops and hisberating
World News Tonight 
for slipping so far in the ratings that it was being seriously threatened bythe third-place
CBS Evening News
. And with that, we were off and running.
It hadn’t been the plan, but I was about to have the most rewarding experience of my
professional life. For just short of fourteen years, I got to work with exceptionally intelligent, curious,and dedicated people. We were paid to find things out that no one else knew but that everyone wantedto know. Then we took our reporting and used every bit of creativity and intelligence we could muster

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