For most of the winter and then the spring, Westin was right back where he’d started, contemplating how much damage he could afford to do to GMA in the cause of saving World News Tonight from a ratings sinkhole. Two days after Woodruff’s injury, Westin asked both Gibson and Sawyer to substitute for Woodruff on World News Tonight, effectively setting up the horse race. He also asked them, as well as Vargas, to talk to him separately about their ideas for reformatting World News Tonight. This would be the beginning of a long and agonizing series of discussions.
From the outset, Charlie Gibson’s position was clear and unwavering. A 63-year-old TV veteran, Gibson is cut from the Father Knows Best mold. Although he’d spent much of his career in the morning trenches, hosting Good Morning America on and off since 1987, he was one of the big boys of TV news, with enough gravitas to moderate a presidential debate in 2004. But he still hadn’t grabbed the brass ring of network TV: the evening anchor, the face of ABC News. Gibson felt he was owed the chair, and much of the newsroom agreed, seeing him as an old-school anchor who would respectfully follow in Jennings’s footsteps. For that very reason, Westin angered many staffers when he only half-offered the job to Gibson last December. Gibson turned it down because it would have meant departing before coverage of the 2008 election, which he wanted to anchor. (There are some in the newsroom who think Gibson’s pride caused a lot of unnecessary anguish for ABC—they suggest that as a matter of strategy, Gibson should have taken the two-year deal then, because it would’ve been hard to dislodge him once he had the job.)
Having felt burned once, Gibson wasn’t going to let it happen again. People close to him say he was tired of GMA—and especially tired of pulling double duty in the evening, subbing for Woodruff. The genial on-air presence was getting less genial by the second: Not only was he asking for more money and a longer contract this time, but he told Westin he’d quit if he didn’t get the job—and he wanted it alone, without Vargas.
In threatening to walk, Gibson had serious leverage—because the threat was so genuine. His wife, Arlene, had just retired as head of the Spence School, making the prospect of his own retirement even more attractive. “I think he was genuinely happy to retire,” says one ABC News producer. “You can only play that card if you mean it.”
Westin was again in a tough spot. Not only did he have Gibson eyeing the door, but he had repeatedly told Vargas she would still be a co-anchor of World News Tonight after her maternity leave, and she was expecting that promise to be kept. But more important, he had yet to fully discern the desires of ABC News’ resident sphinx, Diane Sawyer—in large part because she herself couldn’t make up her mind.
In an interview, Gibson recalled that he and Sawyer had taken on Good Morning America seven years ago as an experiment, checking in with each other regularly to see if the other remained interested in the show. “Diane and I came in to this show, on a temporary basis,” he says. “We always said it was finite, and she’s had discussions with David. She’s had discussions for seven years. We said we’d hang in together. I went to Diane and said, ‘Are you okay with this?’ She said to me, ‘Sure.’ Indeed, she said, ‘You should go do it.’ That was enormously important to me.”
Did Gibson assume her assent was genuine and that she was happy at GMA? “I think she’s in it for a while,” he says. “It’s an interesting program to do.”
But privately, Sawyer is also tired of doing the show. Getting up at 4 A.M. every day to do cooking segments and soft-focus interviews has taken its toll. Like Gibson, Sawyer also wants something more substantial and befitting her age. But she wasn’t yet prepared to quit over it like Gibson was, and that put her at a significant disadvantage.
Sawyer’s refusal to play such a card put her career into a kind of paralysis. Gibson’s ascension would leave nothing of consequence for her at ABC News—or in network news, for that matter—when she eventually departed GMA. If she didn’t move up to World News Tonight, what else was there? ABC’s long-running newsmagazine PrimeTime, where Sawyer began her career at ABC in 1989, isn’t even on the regular fall schedule this year.
Most glaring, former morning-show queen Katie Couric had just moved from Today to the CBS Evening News, single-handedly shifting the TV-news heat to 6:30 P.M. Couric had hired Harvey Weinstein’s former PR man Matthew Hiltzik to help push the perception that the evening news was the place to be—consequently defining the morning host as a lower life-form stuck in the tar pits of reality-TV cheerleading, sucking up to celebrities, and pretending to enjoy eating freshly cooked pasta dishes at 7:30 A.M.