April 4, 2007: Features
By Katherine Hobson ’94
It’s the morning of Jan. 17, and there’s a lot going on in the world. There’s the weather — a freeze in California has put the state’s lucrative citrus crop in jeopardy, and ice storms are battering Texas. In Afghanistan, American and NATO commanders are asking for new troops. New statistics show that cancer deaths are down. And the death and devastation in Iraq continue. One of the questions facing Charles Gibson ’65 this day is which story will be the best to begin the broadcast when he anchors ABC’s World News in less than eight hours. But he says that he’s less concerned about making sure the first five minutes represent the single most important story of the day than with ensuring that the broadcast represents a good distillation of the day’s news. “It’s not so terrible to begin the show with the greatest moment of the day and then get around to what’s most important,” he says. The bigger issue is, “Do you feel you know what’s going on? Was it a half-hour well invested?”
The payoff from that 30-minute investment — a concise glimpse of what happened in the preceding 24 hours — is what Gibson thinks still makes the nightly news relevant in the age of ceaseless, by-the-minute news coverage on cable and the Internet. The 64-year-old Gibson, who took over the World News spot in May (and the next month was named a Princeton trustee), seems to be relishing his new role as anchor, which is both a topical and temporal shift from his 18 years at Good Morning America.
The rhythm of his day is the most obvious change. “After you’ve done GMA,” says Gibson, “World News is so short.” Now he spends each day balancing and making editing decisions, figuring out which of 20-odd pieces conceivably could fit into the 22 minutes of airtime (after commercials). “That’s the fun part of it,” he says. “And though it’s a long day, it’s easier when you spend all your time working up to something.”
In hindsight, it seems that Gibson has been working up to the anchor’s desk since he set his sights on a career in TV. Both a fascination with current events and an interest in journalism came from the home front, where the family’s dinner conversations “involved what was on the front page of The Washington Post,” he says. And when the family got a television — when Gibson was about 14 — his father wanted to watch The Huntley-Brinkley Report every night.
As a sophomore at Princeton, he talked roommate John McIlwain ’65 into doing an 8 a.m. show with him on WPRB. “He decided he was going to be the guy who talked, and I got to do the engineering,” says McIlwain. Eventually Gibson became news director of the station. As his interest in broadcasting grew deeper, he went to Firestone and looked up a list in an industry magazine that named all the reporters who worked for the networks. There weren’t many. “It occurred to me at the time that I was going to devote my life to getting one in a universe of about 120 jobs. I was aware that most big law firms have more partners than that, and that this was a fairly quixotic pursuit,” he says. Gibson figured that if he didn’t get a network job by the time he was 30, he could always go to law school.
After a stint in the Coast Guard, he landed a job at a TV station in Lynchburg, Va., where he was fascinated by both the access he could get in a small town and the issues that dominated the news. “One day I’d be covering a Klan rally, and two days later I’d be sitting in the chambers of the judge in charge of desegregation plans, and the next I’d be meeting with the school board chairman. It was a great laboratory for journalism, and it really whetted my appetite,” he says.
By 28, Gibson was anchoring the local news on the weekends at a small station in Washington, D.C., seemingly on track for his 30-or-bust goal. That’s when the general manager took him aside and said he was never going to make it in TV because he was “too preppy.” Faced with being reassigned to radio, Gibson instead applied for and won a yearlong journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he took courses at the law school. He realized, he says, “that reporters and lawyers have totally different frames of reference and ways of thinking.”
In a course on local government law, he recalls, the class was dissecting the intricacies of a case involving a tree located on land whose ownership was in dispute. The tree fell on a car and ruined it. While other students were debating whether the city or the alleged property owner was responsible, “my approach was, give the guy a new car!” Gibson recalls, remembering his take on the differences between the legal and journalistic mind-sets. “I thought, boy, this is not the way I think. Reporters make snap judgments and they come to these grandiose conclusions — and they don’t always know what they’re talking about,” he says. “We do tomorrow’s story tomorrow — these guys would be taking depositions for a week.”
That inevitably means some initial judgments may be wrong. A case in point: the rape accusations against lacrosse players at Duke University, in which the media pounced on a case that — as Gibson remembers it in its early days — seemed weak. Now there has been a collective reassessment of media coverage. The Iraq war is the most prominent example of industrywide second-guessing: Were the media in general too credulous about the Bush administration’s case for invasion? “There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing about the lead-up to the war,” he says. “There’s a lot to be answered for.” Still, Gibson says, there’s no way a daily organ like a newspaper or nightly broadcast has the luxury afforded to someone writing a book — to take notes on the current situation and then write about it with the benefit of months or even years of hindsight. Those snap judgments? “Journalists make dozens of them during the day, and you can always find mistakes.”
When his year at Michigan was up, Gibson got a job at Television News Inc., a syndicated news service, and he found himself in competition with the major networks covering the Nixon resignation and Watergate trials. “I remember the atmosphere in the House Judiciary hearing room was terribly sobering every day,” he recalls. It was also a turning point for the profession. “I was a little bit too awestruck by what I was doing to have any grandiose feelings about the larger role of reporters,” he says. “But what Woodward and Bernstein did on Watergate changed the feeling of the profession. Journalism became more desirable.”
While covering those hearings, Gibson caught the eye of ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, who says he was impressed by Gibson’s reporting skills and his on-air presence. Gibson was hired by ABC, and has been there ever since, variously covering the House of Representatives and the White House, working as a general assignment correspondent, anchoring Primetime Thursday, and co-anchoring Good Morning America from 1987 to 1998 and then again from 1999 until May, when he became anchor of World News. His GMA sendoff included a performance by the Nassoons. “I came into the morning meeting and there were a bunch of young people there I’d never seen before, and I thought, oh, maybe they’re interns,” he remembers. “And I thought, oh, they’re wearing Princeton ties — isn’t that nice. I was caught totally unawares.” The students serenaded him with “Going Back” at the meeting and then with “Tigertown Blues” and “East of the Sun” during the broadcast.
Gibson’s assumption of the anchor role wasn’t accompanied by the soap opera of coverage that preceded Katie Couric’s switch to CBS, which is appropriate given the heartbreaking circumstances that put him there. First Peter Jennings died, and then Bob Woodruff, one of the two anchors named to replace him, was seriously injured in Iraq. The other co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas, went on maternity leave, and the network opted to return to a single anchor and turned to Gibson — he says, for the stability it would convey.
Jon Friedman, who writes the Media Web column for MarketWatch.com, says that Gibson has “the trust of the audience.” Gibson, Friedman says, has “seen it all and done it all; he has covered wars and disasters. And he doesn’t get a gee-whiz attitude that he’s overwhelmed by what he’s talking about or the people he’s discussing or reporting on. He’s not in awe of anyone.”
After so many years at Good Morning America, Gibson had to adjust to his new role. At GMA, he was Charlie; now he’s officially Charles. He no longer has to get up before the crack of dawn. And, as he recently told media reporter Howard Kurtz on CNN, “there is no kitchen on the set of World News and I will not wear an apron.” He also takes on a stronger leadership role — figuring out what to cover and how, while letting the reporters in the field tell the stories. “We all have egos in this business, so he has an ego,” says Donaldson. “But it’s not an overwhelming one. ... He understands, as did one of our other great anchors, Frank Reynolds, that the anchor will look good if the correspondents look good.”
With his experience — 30 years at a major network — Gibson has lived through the changes that are making traditional media outlets very, very nervous: the rise of cable, fragmentation of the viewing audience, and an Internet full of bloggers. And clearly, the proliferation of sources and outlets has changed the business. Competition to be first has never been higher, as demonstrated by the reporting on the early (and misleading) exit polls in the 2004 election and the heavy promotion of “exclusive” stories. “I try to weed that out,” says Gibson. “If people at home say, ‘I didn’t know that,’ that’s better than you telling them that they don’t know what you’re [about to say]. I don’t need to tell them what to be surprised at.” But the kind, and quality, of news outlets also has changed drastically, thanks in part to the ability to reach others that the Internet gives the average citizen. “Anyone operating in the living room with a computer can call [his online writings] news, and that’s affected the business side of things,” Gibson says.
Clearly, the “three national printing presses,” as Gibson remembers thinking of the networks when he was in college, are facing very different times than in the Huntley-Brinkley era. On any given day, the same people who get their news in a steady stream all day via cable and the Internet — especially younger viewers — aren’t necessarily home at 6:30 p.m. to catch one of the network broadcasts. And once they are home, do they even care? Gibson doesn’t understate the challenge facing network news, especially in courting the young adults so coveted by advertisers. That does not mean he believes that networks should try to target coverage to that demographic. “If you sat around trying to figure out what kind of news appeals to 25- to 54-year-olds, you’d go nuts,” he says. He says, however, that he has seen audience surveys suggesting that younger audiences are still interested in straight news, perhaps because chaotic world events have inspired a new sense of internationalism.
Friedman’s not so sure: “Do you need to see the same clip of President Bush talking about the war? It’s already old. You’ve read it online, you’ve watched it on CNN or on Fox, and you know what’s going on. And the new audience replacing our parents’ generation would rather play with PlayStations.”
Make no mistake, though; the network news is still where people turn in a time of crisis, and even on a regular day the broadcasts pull in more than 26 million viewers a night. In February, ABC’s World News was the most-watched of the three network evening news shows, with both the most total viewers and the most viewers in the 25–54 age group. The show had not swept both categories for more than a decade. (Ratings for Gibson’s non-network television competition, cable news shows, also climbed across the board, driven partly, observers say, by the made-for-cable stories of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, the odd behavior of pop star Britney Spears, and the misadventures of astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak.)
More than ratings, Gibson has been thinking about the dichotomy between what people want to know and what they need to know. Clearly there’s always a tension — how many men begin the day with the sports section and assume they can absorb foreign news by osmosis as they flip the pages? The ability to precisely customize what news comes in front of your eyes — say, by setting up your Yahoo! homepage with only the news categories you’re interested in, is new. “I really worry about whether or not people are getting the news that they need,” Gibson says. That, he believes, is where newspapers and the evening news still play a key role. “Someone is there with 50 years of journalism experience saying ‘This is what I think is important.’”
Related to that is the rise of programs and entire networks putting a spin on the news. Fox’s perceived conservative tilt (or, from its point of view, its attempt to balance the liberal bias of the rest of the media) is the prime example. Gibson says he isn’t knocking the network’s ideology, but he says that it can be limiting for viewers to narrow their focus and “gravitate to reporters or views that reinforce their already-formed opinions,” wherever they fall on the political spectrum. The danger, he says, is that our self-chosen media diet will give us a lot of what we want, what resonates with us and makes us feel comfortable, but it won’t expose us to alternative views — or to the serendipity of a story we never would have seen unless someone stuck it in front of us via the front page or nightly news.
He doesn’t talk about his own political beliefs and says he tries to weed out bias of any kind when he sees it. “I’d be hard-pressed to find it here,” he says, noting that his colleagues don’t talk about their own political beliefs, either. “David Brinkley would say there’s no such thing as objectivity, just degrees of subjectivity, but it seems to me important for people to seek out news organs that are as objective as they can be,” says Gibson. “What I’m preaching [at World News] is that that is what we have to do.”
But objectivity doesn’t necessarily mean a bland balancing of “on one hand/on the other” in stories that leave viewers scratching their heads and wondering what the story was about. And adding perspective and even a point of view may be key to pulling in viewers. “In some respects, the constant debate around here was whether there should be some edge to pieces,” he says. To wit: The good news on cancer deaths — they declined in 2004 for the second year in a row — was accompanied by a visit by President Bush to the National Institutes of Health, where Bush praised the success being made in the fight against cancer and called the NIH a national asset that “needs to be nourished.” But the budget for the National Cancer Institute was cut in fiscal 2006 for the first time in a decade. “Do we call him on that?” wonders Gibson. “How do you deal with that? If you do, does it mean you have a liberal bias?”
On the night of Jan. 17, the cancer story was the story that ABC “got on the air with.” Quite possibly it wasn’t the most important story of the day, but it was the moment chosen to begin the broadcast (the weather and Afghanistan followed). And yes, Gibson did ask his correspondent about NIH budget cuts. That kind of perspective, he thinks, makes for a good return on the 30-minute nightly investment still being made by millions of people.
Katherine Hobson ’94 covers health and medicine at U.S. News & World Report.