Former ABC News President Speaks at GW

David Westin reflects on his time leading a major news operation in a discussion with SMPA Director Frank Sesno.

Former ABC News President David Westin shared stories about his time at the helm of ABC News with SMPA Director Frank Sesno at a GW event.
October 05, 2012

David Westin remembers his first job in journalism very well. It was in 1997, when he was named president of ABC News.

Mr. Westin spoke about his 13-year tenure at ABC News with SMPA Director Frank Sesno at an event last week in the Media and Public Affairs Building. While at ABC, Mr. Westin oversaw the network’s coverage of a number of major events, including President Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, the 9/11 attacks, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the economic crisis of 2008. He details many of these stories in his new book “Exit Interview.”

The Oct. 3 presidential debate was the first topic of discussion for Mr. Sesno and Mr. Westin, who said he believed former Gov. Mitt Romney had the stronger performance.

“I think that most people would come away feeling that Gov. Romney was enthusiastic, passionate, focused, intelligent and was leaning forward really through the whole debate,” said Mr. Westin. “The president seemed to be leaning back on his heels; he seemed to be somewhat passive, somewhat hesitant, didn’t engage as directly as one might have hoped, and I think that forms an impression, particularly when you have a challenger going against an incumbent.”

Mr. Westin and Mr. Sesno also discussed the performance of the debate’s moderator, PBS Newshour’s Jim Lehrer, who has received criticism for being too passive. Mr. Westin said he thought Mr. Lehrer should have been more structured and was “reticent” to interrupt the candidates and keep the debate on schedule.

Mr. Westin recalled a debate with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia during the 2008 Democratic primaries, moderated by ABC News’ Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. While the network “got a lot of grief” for its moderators being “too hard” on President Obama, Mr. Westin said he believes the moderator’s job is to challenge presidential candidates.

“If you want to be president of the United States, you should be able to handle Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, because if you can’t handle them, what are you going to do with Putin?” he said. “It’s a tough job.”

What makes a gifted interviewer, said Mr. Westin, is someone who can put themselves in the shoes of the person they are interviewing--and think about what viewers will want to know.

“Those are two very different things, because the things people want to talk about are not necessarily the things people want to hear,” he said.

Mr. Westin and Mr. Sesno also discussed the role of social media in journalism, especially during the presidential debates. Mr. Westin said he followed comments on Twitter as he watched the debates, and wondered if the comments he read about President Obama partially influenced his own impression of the debate.

Mr. Westin began working for ABC in the early 1990s, working as general counsel of Capital Cities Communications, then the parent company of ABC, before becoming president of ABC Television network and then ABC News. His appointment caused much skepticism among the ABC news team, including ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings, who was not shy to give Mr. Westin his opinions on network decisions.

“Looking at it now, I think they were right to be skeptical,” said Mr. Westin. “I didn’t appreciate—until I did it for 14 years—the commitment that’s required, the experience that’s required. If you haven’t gone through these major breaking news events with people, if you haven’t dealt with crises—both internal and those you’re covering—until you’ve done that, you don’t really understand it.”

Under Mr. Westin’s direction, ABC News embraced digital technology, launching its website,, and starting the first live streaming 24-hour news service, ABC News Now. During Mr. Westin’s tenure, ABC News earned 11 George Foster Peabody Awards, 13 Alfred I. DuPont Awards, four George Polk Awards, more than 40 Emmy Awards and more than 40 Edward R. Murrow Awards.

Mr. Westin currently serves as an adviser to NewsRight, a company that provides and tracks news content online.

One of Mr. Westin’s biggest decisions as president of ABC News was to run a two-hour primetime special on the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Mr. Westin recalled a call he got from Mr. Jennings, who cautioned him not to run the special—and then promptly hung up.

“He said, ‘I feel I owe it to you to tell you if you do a primetime special on Princess Diana, no one will take ever take you seriously as the president of ABC News,’” said Mr. Westin. “So here I am, four-and-a-half months in the job, I don’t have the journalism background….here I have Peter Jennings telling me my first big news call is totally wrong.”

Given the enormous global interest in the princess of Wales, Mr. Westin told the audience he decided to go ahead with the special, and lined up Diana Sawyer and Barbara Walters to co-anchor.

The next morning, Mr. Westin got a call from Mr. Jennings, who asked to join the special. Mr. Westin said there was an important lesson to be learned from Mr. Jennings’ initial reluctance to participate.

“Peter was raising an important issue: When you make decisions about how you cover the news, how much of it is because it’s a really important event, and how much of it is entertainment value?” said Mr. Westin. “That’s a really hard line, and that line has moved. Today, no one would raise Peter’s issue.”

Mr. Westin and Mr. Sesno also talked about the flak ABC News received from having actor Leonardo DiCaprio interview President Bill Clinton for the network’s primetime Earth Day special in 2000, ethics in journalism, and the debate surrounding the wearing of American flag lapel pins on air after 9/11.

Although he has not worked for ABC since 2010, Mr. Westin declined to answer Mr. Sesno’s question about whether ABC’s popular morning show “The View”—co-hosted by Ms. Walters, a longtime ABC News employee—was considered a news show.

“I don’t want to get in trouble with Barbara,” he said as the audience laughed. “There are some loyalties that don’t die.”