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Charlie the Conqueror

While Diane Sawyer waffled about taking over as the ABC evening-news anchor and the pregnant Elizabeth Vargas tried to hold on to it, her formally avuncular Good Morning America co-host Charles Gibson swooped in and seized the throne for himself.

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Illustrations by Demetrios Psillos.  

When Diane Sawyer did not get tapped to anchor ABC’s World News Tonight, it could have been reasonably assumed that she must not have wanted the job. Otherwise, what could explain the decision? She is the network’s most bankable news star, and she has made no secret of her desire to handle weightier fare than she can get away with on Good Morning America. In fact, her original decision to sign on as co-host of the ailing GMA was motivated in part by a desire to do what was best for the network, with the clear indication that she’d move on to other things when the salvage operation was done. For bringing GMA into hot contention with NBC’s previously dominant Today show, surely she had earned first dibs on the network’s most prestigious news job. But did she want it?

“Yes and no,” she told me as we sat in her office on West 66th Street. “No and yes.” There were, apparently, other considerations.

The 60-year-old Sawyer has a reputation for sharp career instincts. But in this instance, another side of her has come into view. Faced with a choice that would shape the rest of her broadcast career, she slipped into Hamlet mode, unsure of how to balance her loyalties and self-interest. Which, as much as anything, is what gave her GMA co-host, Charles Gibson, the chance to land the job himself—and to ensure that it was his and his alone. Gibson had none of Sawyer’s ambivalence. He saw his opportunity and he took it, pushing aside both Sawyer and Elizabeth Vargas, the pregnant incumbent who is going on maternity leave in August and fully expected to return. Now Vargas seems to be out of a job, and Sawyer is stuck on GMA, unhappily, with no obvious next move for her. Rather than solve the significant, perhaps terminal long-term problems of the evening news, Gibson’s ascension may well have exposed a whole raft of new ones for ABC.

Before Peter Jennings, the sturdy and magnanimous icon of ABC’s World News Tonight, announced he had lung cancer in the spring of 2005, ABC News executives were content to act as if his tenure would extend indefinitely into the future. “I think we all dreamed that Peter would be there forever,” says Sawyer. This wasn’t wishful thinking or pure delusion. It was the ABC plan. While Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather retired, Jennings would stay for two, three years, perhaps longer, and give ABC not only a competitive advantage in the meantime but the chance to groom his successors. Neither Sawyer nor Gibson figured in the equation. By the time Jennings was ready to go, the morning-show hosts would no longer be viable candidates to replace him, clearing the path for the next generation.

Confronted with Jennings’s sudden demise, ABC News president David Westin first tried a stopgap measure. He offered a two-year deal to Gibson to keep the seat warm until the 2008 election and then gracefully move aside. Westin says he considered offering the job at that time to Sawyer. “Given her stature and her history and her talents, anyone would have considered that,” he says. “That would be a bold and powerful move.” Rumors leaked out that, in fact, Sawyer wanted the job and had made a play for it.

But at the time, both ABC and Sawyer had a strong mutual interest in not upsetting the balance at GMA. The hugely profitable program, which contributes much more to ABC’s bottom line than the evening news, was gaining fast on the Today show. Losing Sawyer would sap that momentum, destroying years of progress. And so the interim spot was offered to Gibson, who promptly rejected it. Unlike Sawyer, Gibson, at that point in his career, was no longer willing to take one for the team. He made clear he would accept nothing less than the permanent position.

With nowhere else to go, Westin turned to the network’s younger stars, Vargas and Bob Woodruff, and anointed them co-anchors. This move was heavily influenced by one of Westin’s lieutenants, Paul Slavin, who saw the two new anchors as agents of a youthful resurgence at ABC News. They took over on January 3, and though their ratings lagged well behind Brian Williams’s at NBC, the situation seemed relatively sustainable.

All that came undone on January 29 of this year when Woodruff was nearly killed in a roadside attack in Iraq. That was a Sunday, and the next day, Vargas told Westin that she was pregnant. Westin, a lawyer who worked his way up ABC’s corporate ladder, had been dealt perhaps as difficult a hand as any TV-news executive ever had. He had to proceed cautiously and allow, first, for the possibility of Woodruff’s rapid recovery. Over the subsequent days and weeks, he conferred regularly with Woodruff’s family. In that time, it became clear that it would be a long while until Woodruff was ready to return to the air, if ever (in recent weeks, he has had a piece of prosthetic skull put in his head, and people who have spoken with him say his memory and speech are still shaky). Inside ABC, it is understood that Woodruff’s family applied pressure on Westin to keep him from giving away Woodruff’s job (the family declined to comment for this story), but Westin disputes that categorically. “I’ve had no resistance from them at all,” he says. “I’ve told him every time I’ve seen him, ‘There’s a chair here.’ I’m not sending a message that ‘you can’t come back and there won’t be room for you.’ ” But whatever hopes Woodruff and his family may be harboring, that chair was not going to be the anchor chair.


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