tampabay.com

Ever the company man, he steps up

Charlie Gibson, newly christened World News Tonight anchor, hopes to right ABC's ship, listing from a year of turmoil.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published May 27, 2006


His voice sounds tired, and he can't keep from yawning.

But 24 hours after his ascension Tuesday as top anchor at ABC News, Charlie Gibson refuses to admit the obvious, insisting he's not fatigued, despite spending much of the day before discoursing about his unlikely rise to the top job at his network.

"I have a meeting in a few minutes, and there's a good chance I'll sleep through it," he finally admits, calling from his offices at ABC's Times Square studios. "I remember when I first came to Good Morning America and (then co-host) Joan Lunden said to me, 'Ever been jet-lagged? Well, you're going to feel that way every day.' "

It's a feeling Gibson will face more often as he tackles double duty starting Monday: co-anchoring Good Morning America alongside Diane Sawyer early in the day and anchoring World News Tonight at 6:30 p.m., replacing Elizabeth Vargas, who's bound for maternity leave.

Critics have said ABC unfairly pushed Vargas, 43, from the job because of declining ratings and whispers that she lacked gravitas. Gibson backs the network's position: that Vargas herself stepped down after realizing how physically demanding the pregnancy would be and how much the top anchor job would take her from her young children.

Gibson's reputation for easygoing charm and nice-guy leadership will be tested in the weeks to come, as he tries to calm a newsroom that has seemed plagued by bad luck over the past year, from the death of anchor Peter Jennings to the severe injury of Vargas' co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, in Iraq. Add to that a recent ratings dip.

Despite all that's on his plate, the 63-year-old anchor still found time to answer a few questions from the St. Petersburg Times.

What do you think about the avalanche of stories that have come so far on this change?

"I think for the most part, people have gotten it right. This is a strange series of occurrences we've gone through, and it has altered the course of ABC for a while. We were on a very steady course for a while. . . . I certainly thought Peter would be anchor for the rest of my span at the network. It's just a year ago that we get blindsided by Peter's illness. And then he died, and Bob was injured. And that hasn't settled down, and it turns out Elizabeth's pregnant. And if you're pregnant at 43, it's not the same if you're pregnant at 23. They looked over at the candy machine, and I was the last guy standing there."

I remember when you first left GMA in 1998, and you were very gracious about a situation in which many people thought you were being pushed out. And when ABC declined to let you have the top job through the 2008 elections, you were gracious again. Doesn't sound like the key to success in TV news.

"This company's been very good to me. It's not often somebody works in this business for 30-something years. It's very difficult to be disgruntled with a company that has, in effect, paid for your life. That's part of it. In the first instance you mentioned, it was time for me to go. There's a natural span of things. We could feel the program going south. I think they probably would have pushed me if I hadn't jumped, but I was tapped out. What I hadn't anticipated was that doing it with Diane (Sawyer, who joined the program when he returned in 1999) made it a totally different experience.

"In the instance of the situation after Peter died, I've made no secret of the fact that I wanted to do it. David (Westin, president of ABC News) had a different concept of what world news could be. I didn't agree with it, because it affected me personally, but I understood it. I even defended it to other people. . . . Plus, they're paying you nicely. So when David and I had that disagreement . . . we actually did it without many bad feelings. . . . You're very kind to say I was gracious, but it's not hard when you're in a good job."

CBS's interim anchor, Bob Schieffer, said top anchors need some seasoning. Is that why you're the man for this job now?

"I totally subscribe to that. I've worked for 30-plus years for this news division. I can get on a subway and get to the London bureau, and I know the crews in Dallas. And beyond that, there is the comfort level of what you cover. I have weaknesses in my range of knowledge, but I also have strengths. Peter was incredible. . . . He could remember the trees along the cemetery where (former Israeli prime minister) Yitzhak Rabin was buried . . . he just knew the Middle East. American politics, I'm very comfortable with. I think when Bob says (younger CBS reporters) are not ready to anchor, he's right. Until you've really spent a lot of time doing this, you're not ready."

Someone who once worked at ABC told me the absence of experienced journalists such as Jennings and Ted Koppel made it tougher for the news department to handle all the instability.

"Well, part of our instability was caused by Peter's death. The reasons Ted left are evident; much of it stemmed from that issue of whether there would be Nightline in perpetuity. The two things I can bring are experience and stability. So I do think that this department, given the fact that it's been rocked by two broadsides - Peter's death and Bob's injury and the good news of Elizabeth's pregnancy - needs some stability. That's very important for a news department, so people aren't constantly looking over their shoulders and waiting for another shoe to drop."

Schieffer came into CBS, stabilized its news department and saw the ratings increase. Do you think you'd have this job if he hadn't succeeded there?

"I don't think it's analogous. I'm a product of circumstance, but it's a product of circumstances at ABC. I love Bob and he's a friend - we ran into each other at a baseball game on Saturday. Bob essentially brought CBS News back to where it was before Dan (Rather) got stuck in controversy. In my case, they sort of looked around and there was nobody standing here but me."

What will your schedule be like for the time you're doing both Good Morning America and World News Tonight?

"I will do four World News shows and three GMAs a week. I did that for a while when Peter was sick, and (I) caught pneumonia. It was a long haul. But I'm going to do it for (about) five weeks . . . this time, which isn't nearly as long. It's very hard to make an impact; sometimes . . . it's about two years before anybody knows that you're gone from a show. I used to talk to (former GMA weatherman) Tony Perkins and tell him it takes five years for people to know who you are. They're not watching this show the way they watch American Idol and Lost. People still walk up to me and say 'Brit, it's great to see you' (mistaking him for former ABC correspondent-turned-Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume). So my appearances on GMA will help pump the fact that I'm going to World News."

Are we going to see a lengthy farewell like Katie Couric is getting now on the Today show?

"God no. I don't want to be canonized. Less is more, as far as I'm concerned, on that score."

What about the speculation that Diane Sawyer may leave GMA next year?

"Diane, as far as I know, will stay for a while, though I think we both felt that we would sort of leave pretty close together. One of the things that was important to me was to have her okay with me going to World News. She said to me, 'It's good for you to do - you have to do it.' We had a conversation last week about it. . . . She did not ever say she was close to a deal (to host the show herself). She used to tease me about it being her show and I would say it's her show and then we'd say, actually, it's Elizabeth's show."

NBC seemed to do a good job of grooming Brian Williams to take its top news anchor job from Tom Brokaw. Why didn't ABC take time to groom someone to succeed Jennings?

"It's a tricky thing to find anchors, I guess. NBC certainly did do that very well; they identified Brian early on. But in our case, Peter got sick and the very commendable thing that David Westin did - though it may have been inimical to (developing a successor) - David said there will be no conversation on the possibility that Peter's dying. We're not going to think about it, we're not going to discuss it inside the building or outside the building, we're just going to assume Peter's coming back for reasons of just plain decency. I can tell you when conversations, particularly with management, would begin to go in that direction (during meetings), people would just stop. It wasn't until Peter was dead and eulogized and given proper military honors that anyone even broached the subject. Nobody pulled a frame of video until he was gone."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/ blogs/media.