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Charlie the Conqueror

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Elizabeth Vargas: Westin told Vargas she’d lost the job. “In talking to Charlie,” he says, “it became clear the way Charlie perceived this program . . . it was really more of a one-anchor program.”   

As the discussions grew more intense, Westin made sure to stay attuned to the desires of Sawyer, a kind of occult influence at ABC News and a woman with whom he has had a complex relationship. Sawyer was an acolyte of the late Roone Arledge, the legendary ABC News president who invented Nightline and 20/20, and who nurtured superstar anchors like Jennings and Ted Koppel. Because he had created them, and because he was such a larger-than-life figure, Arledge was always able to maintain strong control over his on-air talent. As famous as they became, Jennings and Koppel served at Arledge’s pleasure.

Westin, on the other hand, didn’t create stars, he inherited them—and the stars didn’t necessarily listen to him. Westin’s abilities tended more toward lawyerly mediation and political calculation than gut instincts about television. As a $12 million–a–year star, Sawyer has essentially shared power with Westin since he arrived in 1997, in part because she helped smooth the way for his hire. At the time, Westin was engaged in a widely publicized affair with Sherrie Rollins, the then-wife of GOP strategist Ed Rollins, upsetting Disney executives who were displeased with the indiscretion. Sawyer was friends with Sherrie, who is now Westin’s wife, and threw a wedding party for the two at her house in Martha’s Vineyard. Sawyer and her husband, film director Mike Nichols, introduced David Westin to their celebrity social spheres, deepening the relationship. When Sherrie Westin was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Sawyer attended an ultrasound.

When Sawyer agreed to take the job co-hosting GMA, she gave Westin his first taste of ratings success at ABC News. It also validated Sawyer’s superstar status and may well be the greatest achievement of her career. “I’m very attached to the show, and I have been able to do things with the show and on the show that have given me a real sense of freedom and surprise,” Sawyer says. “That doesn’t always happen when you’ve been around this long.”

Both Sawyer and Westin acknowledge that she would love to anchor World News Tonight, but Westin says Sawyer was clear—she didn’t want it if it meant taking it away from Gibson. “She wasn’t being coy,” says Westin. “She really did mean it.”

If Sawyer did get the job over Gibson—and Gibson made good on his promise to bolt—that would leave a smoking crater where Good Morning America once was, a major blow to ABC News. A GMA stripped of both stars was a risk that Westin could not take; Sawyer almost certainly would have known that and realized that if she had demanded the anchor job, he may not have been in the position to give it to her. Instead he had to set up a situation in which she decided not to pursue the job. Which is more or less how she tells it. “Everyone always says the morning drives the news these days, but you can’t come out of hard news and be in this business and not be interested in World News Tonight,” says Sawyer. “But for me, not if it costs this network Charlie Gibson. Period.”

Did she resent Gibson for his hard position?

“It’s his life, and he has to love his work, too,” she says.

Through the course of many conversations between Sawyer and Westin, Westin says that he gave Sawyer the chance to take the job, but she wouldn’t. This is his official position, and it squares with Sawyer’s official position, which is that she had these other concerns and wasn’t sure she wanted it. Except of course that she did want it. The situation thus started to move toward a predictable outcome—that she wasn’t going to get it, and that Gibson was.

Instead of being content with this state of affairs, Sawyer seemed very much at loose ends. Clearly, she had been outplayed. Should she have fought for the job? Was there still a chance? When she left for a sailing vacation in the Caribbean in April, some ABC News executives got the distinct impression from Westin that Sawyer was so unhappy that she might quit, say people familiar with the situation.

During the trip, which included Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and media mogul David Geffen, Sawyer asked Geffen for career advice. He recommended she dial up Allen Grubman, a high-powered entertainment lawyer who also represents Barbara Walters, to explore her options. When she got back, Sawyer hired Grubman and began having conversations with Disney chief Robert Iger and Anne Sweeney, the co-chair of Disney Media Network and president of the Disney-ABC Television Group.

She acknowledges that she was concerned about her future at that point but says she hired Grubman only to examine her contract, not to play hardball with ABC News or Disney. Since a falling-out with her former agent, Richard Liebner, Sawyer says she simply hasn’t had a business adviser. “To proceed down the near- and medium-term without anybody who was going to help with any of this stuff just didn’t seem smart,” says Sawyer. “Everybody around me said, ‘You’re insane, what are you doing?’ It was to think about medium- and long-term—looking ahead.”


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