But given her age, Sawyer’s next job is likely her last, and she knows it. What exactly Grubman did—whether he negotiated an exit strategy from GMA or fought for the anchor position—isn’t entirely clear. Sawyer declined to discuss it, other than to say that one of her desires is to do more serious journalism in prime time. “If I can’t do that kind of thing, I’m vitamin-deficient,” says Sawyer. “I can’t do this work if I can’t also get some big, meaty stuff to do.”
Sawyer was also worried about the prospect of being left on a destabilized show. GMA is almost a million viewers behind the Today show after a neck-and-neck ratings run last year. And she now faced the prospect of losing to a newcomer, Meredith Vieira, former co-host of the ABC chat show The View, who was replacing Couric on Today. When it was first reported in April that Vieira was being courted by NBC, Sawyer became concerned. In a rare moment of mutual interest, Sawyer joined forces with Barbara Walters, the former ABC News grande dame and a View co-host, to talk to Westin about Vieira’s future at the network. Over the years, the relationship between the aging Arledge-era superstars had been cool at best, downright venomous at worst. For Sawyer, the motive was clear: She didn’t want Vieira as competition, especially since GMA would already be weakened by Gibson’s imminent departure. Getting beat by Couric was one thing, Vieira quite another. As it happens, hiring Vieira at ABC News would also offer another scenario: Vieira could replace Sawyer on Good Morning America, allowing Sawyer to take the evening program or move on.
But the pitch made for Vieira didn’t appear very competitive. “Barbara Walters at one point did raise the possibility of making an arrangement to do some pieces for 20/20 to encourage her to stay,” says Westin. “We did talk very seriously about having Meredith play some role on the newsmagazines. But Meredith on GMA didn’t get much past the starting gate.”
With newsroom staffers growing anxious for resolution, ABC News had hoped to end the four months of uncertainty by announcing a new anchor at the upfronts in May, the yearly event where networks unveil their fall shows for advertisers. The week before, Westin had come to his decision and formally offered Gibson the job—co-anchoring the evening news with Vargas.
Gibson steadfastly refused, telling Westin he would retire at the end of his contract next year. To drive his point home, he also refused to substitute for Vargas during her maternity leave, says a person familiar with the situation. “In talking to Charlie, it became clear the way Charlie perceived this program and his role on the program . . . It was really more of a one-anchor program,” says Westin.
On the day of ABC’s upfronts presentation, the previous week’s ratings showed World News Tonight had slipped to third place in the ratings behind CBS News for the first time in five years, ratcheting up the tension at ABC. Although the network insists the discrepancy of nearly 80,000 viewers was an anomaly, World News Tonight was undeniably sinking. And there was fear about what would happen when Couric took over in September for Bob Schieffer at CBS.
After haggling with Gibson, Westin finally made a decision. Days before the announcement, he told Vargas that Gibson would take over World News Tonight, alone.
Vargas, 43 years old, began her career at ABC as a news reader for GMA, where producers had hoped to groom her as an anchor. But Gibson didn’t cotton to her and was “far from warm and welcoming,” says a person familiar with the situation. She eventually sought a role at the newsmagazines. She wound up as a co-anchor of 20/20 and early on voiced a desire to one day anchor World News Tonight, saying she felt a woman other than Sawyer should be considered for such jobs. Asked at the time if she’d been contacted about the CBS Evening News position, which Couric was already rumored to be up for, she said, “I think they’re too busy calling Diane Sawyer.”
When Westin gave her the news, Vargas was taken by complete surprise, say people close to her. Having been assured by Westin that she would retain her job when she returned, they say, she felt betrayed.
Westin has a different memory of Vargas’s reaction. “Surprised?” he says. “No, I’m not sure it is right. She had raised with me her concerns about her health and family. We made a mutual decision. I don’t think so, but you need to ask her.”
Asked to comment, Vargas describes her reaction as “complicated,” but says her pregnancy had caused her to reevaluate her life and career. “I hope I get another chance to do this job, maybe at another time,” she adds. “It doesn’t mean it might not work out in a few years.”