Over his 13 years as ABC News president, David Westin says his biggest regret was in not heeding Peter Jennings’ skepticism about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“We had all sorts of sources — reliable sources — telling us they were there, absolutely,” says Westin, whose memoir, Exit Interview (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), hits the stands today.
Jennings was not convinced, according to Westin. “I said to him, more than once, ‘No matter what happens, if the U.S. goes in there, they will find WMDs.’ Peter would say, ‘Don’t be so sure.’”
Despite his anchor’s deep expertise in the Middle East, Westin, like most news organizations in the free world, went with the party line. In retrospect, “I wish we’d dropped everything, assigned more people and pushed harder,” he says. “We’d all be better off.”
Westin was at the helm for numerous historic events during his 1997-to-2010 run at ABC – an extraordinary tenure in the modern news era. Behind the scenes, he spent much of his time trying to balance corporate’s demand for more profit with the needs of a world-class news operation.
It was a tough balancing act, even for someone who kept his eye on nine TV monitors on his office wall.
“An important part of my job was to remind the news division it was a business, and we had to be mindful about how we spent our money,” Westin, 59, says. “I also reminded corporate [Disney] that news was more than a business. We made decisions regularly because it was the right thing to do.”
In February 2010, the right thing to do, corporate-wise, was to cut the news division’s 1,500-person staff by a whopping twenty-five percent, mostly through buyouts. It was an ugly day for Westin.
“The cuts were perfectly awful for everyone involved,” he says. “… These are wonderful people who spent 20, 30, 40 years there. It weighed on me, personally, very heavily. At the same time, I knew it was the right thing to do.
“Some people understood it, some resisted it. That’s true in any company. Over time, people understood that part of our mission required us to be able to be careful in the way we spent money. If you don’t care about the business of journalism, you don’t care about journalism.”
Still, choosing between high-quality journalism and economics is a false choice, in Westin’s view. “If you want to do good journalism, it costs money. You have to pay reporters over time to develop beats and sources.”
In January of this year, Westin was named president and CEO of News Right, a consortium of news organizations exploring ways to license original content to the web. In a world in which anyone can be a “news” purveyor, it is up to consumers to differentiate real news from unfiltered opinion, he cautions.
Not that Westin has a problem with the latter – it has worked brilliantly as a business model for Fox News, he says.
Regardless of ideology, opinion journalism “has a legitimate role” on broadcast and cable news, Westin explains. “It is vivid, not that expensive to do and creates deep engagement with the audience. “
The key, he says, is in making sure the line stays clear between “reporting what is true and reporting what you and the audience want to be true.”
Problem is, that line keeps moving, and nobody, including Westin, knows where it will stop.