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Changing of the guard at ABC News

David Westin's exit signals static ahead

Roone Arledge, among other things, knew how to put on a show. There was nothing quite like an ABC affiliates meeting during his free-wheeling stewardship of ABC Sports and ABC News, when a glittering array of high-paid stars — Peter Jennings! Ted Koppel! Ladies and gentleman, Barbara Walters! — would trot out to wow the crowd.

The appointment of his successor, David Westin, seemed like everything short of a formal announcement the party was over. A lawyer by training, Westin had been one of Bob Iger’s chief lieutenants in running the ABC TV group. He hardly looked the type to dig in his heels, fighting off corporate overseers on behalf of ABC News.

That Westin’s 13-year stint at ABC News might be remembered fondly in hindsight by the news rank-and-file speaks volumes regarding the changes that strafed TV news during his tenure — and worse, what might lie ahead.

ABC announced on Labor Day that Westin will leave the news division at year’s end, amid reports he was no longer interested in implementing further cuts at the already downsized division. The network unveiled plans early this year to reduce staffing levels by roughly 25%.

To say Westin’s term has been a mixed bag, strictly from a news purist’s perspective, would be the epitome of understatement. Westin managed to save “Nightline” after current Disney CEO Iger and ABC’s entertainment division made a stealth bid to lure away David Letterman in 2002, for example, but the surviving entity minus Koppel has become a shadow of its former self — as apt to take its lead from TMZ as the New York Times.

Nevertheless, Westin has served as an advocate for the news division, during a period that has forced brutal cuts upon journalistic operations in both TV and print. Any examination of ABC News, in fact, must contemplate the larger news landscape, and network owners’ desire to see news operate as a profit center, not a public service.

Despite her rightfully lauded Sarah Palin interview — which exposed the former Alaska governor as more TLC reality host than deep political thinker — Katie Couric has not turned out to be CBS News’ savior, where ratings woes this summer have renewed speculation and sniping about “The CBS Evening News” anchor’s longterm plans.

Fox News functions principally as a political operation, and NBC/MSNBC has created an effective (if slightly bipolar) business model through shared broadcast-cable resources. In the wildcard category that leaves CNN, which — if its just-released promos for new primetime program “Parker Spitzer,” which sounds like a high-end faucet, are any indication — appears desperately in need of adult supervision.

Talk of combining CNN with either ABC News or CBS News has repeatedly arisen, with CBS the more logical choice if only because the company already works in concert with Time Warner in other areas — namely, as equal partners in the CW network and via their shared NCAA basketball tournament contract.

Even such a cooperative venture, however, wouldn’t address the underlying problems plaguing TV news. These include emphasizing light morning-show fluff and celebrity/reality-TV gossip; political polarization of the information market, as people gravitate toward ideologically like-minded sources; and difficulty justifying expensive reporting when studio-bound cable hosts attract significant audiences on a relatively puny budget.

Westin didn’t completely go native in protecting ABC News’ traditions, and he played along by cranking out frothy summer fillers like the hidden-camera series “What Would You Do?” But he did fight for a certain level of resources to pursue the division’s larger mission — a line his replacement will doubtless be hard-pressed to hold.

It’s easy for Couric’s predecessor, Dan Rather, to sound like a cranky voice in the wilderness, but he wasn’t wrong when he said in a recent interview, “The public is not well-served by political coverage as it is today.”

Then again, Rather landed his coveted CBS anchor job in 1981 after Arledge made a calculated bid for him, figuring he’d win either by stealing Rather or forcing Walter Cronkite to hang up his spurs early.

See, Arledge knew how to play hardball, too. And back then, unlike his future heirs, the House that Roone Built could still afford plenty of bats and balls with which to do it.

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