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September 19, 2014

Are ABC News' Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer at War?

by Gary Susman, posted Nov 18th 2009 6:00PM
Diane Sawyer and Charles GibsonCharlie Gibson may be leaving ABC News' top job, as nightly 'World News' anchor, voluntarily at the end of the year, but that doesn't mean he's making nice with his successor, Diane Sawyer.

A report in the New York Post cited anonymous sources at ABC News as saying Gibson is openly hostile toward his former 'Good Morning America' co-host. "Charlie has always given Diane the stink eye," an unnamed ABC insider told the Post. "He bad-mouths her openly and often."Diane Sawyer and Charles GibsonCharlie Gibson may be leaving ABC News' top job, as nightly 'World News' anchor, voluntarily at the end of the year, but that doesn't mean he's making nice with his successor, Diane Sawyer.

A report in the New York Post cited anonymous sources at ABC News as saying Gibson is openly hostile toward his former 'Good Morning America' co-host. "Charlie has always given Diane the stink eye," an unnamed ABC insider told the Post. "He bad-mouths her openly and often."

Gibson told the Post he and Sawyer get along fine (Sawyer herself isn't quoted), but the story seems plausible, given the history between Gibson and Sawyer, as well as the ego- and personality-driven decision-making process behind hires and promotions at ABC News.

One has to consider the source, of course; the Post is owned by News Corporation, parent company of Fox News, so it has a vested interest in making one of Fox's network news competitors look bad. There is also the fact that the allegations of hostility are anonymous, while Gibson went on the record to deny them. "This notion that there is some kind of enmity that exists between Diane and me is just silly. We worked together for over seven years, side-by-side ... We laughed together, cried together (particularly during the time after 9/11), and developed a strong mutual bond," he told the Post. "I have tremendous respect and fondness for Diane. Diane and I have talked a number of times about the transition and what this job entails. We're having lunch this week to continue the conversation."

Still, ABC News has a history of creating stars (like Gibson, Sawyer, Barbara Walters, and Peter Jennings) and letting them fight it out. It's been better at letting these old lions compete for the same turf than at grooming new talent to replace them down the line. And succession is what's at the heart of Gibson's alleged beef against Sawyer, according to the Post's source.

"He wanted George [Stephanopoulos] to get the job," said the Post's insider. "He was shocked when he learned Diane got it, and he was really angry that she stole his thunder. As soon as she was named, it was all about Diane."

If there is any bad blood between Gibson and Sawyer, who always seemed amiable co-hosts during their shared tenure at 'GMA,' it goes back to how Gibson outmaneuvered Sawyer to land the evening news anchor job when it opened up in 2006, after Jennings died and new co-anchor Bob Woodruff was seriously wounded in Iraq.

At the time, New York magazine spoke to Gibson and Sawyer and pieced together the definitive narrative of how Gibson demanded the anchor chair, or else he'd bolt the network. (Then 63, he figured he'd never have another shot at ABC News' most prestigious job.) Sawyer, then as now a bigger star than Gibson, could have elbowed him out of the way, but she didn't want to be seen as the bad guy who'd both forced ABC to lose Gibson and left a vacuum at 'GMA,' the news division's most lucrative show.

Gibson got what he wanted, but Sawyer was forced to sit on her hands. Just three years younger than Gibson, she had to face the prospect that she might never become anchor, and that her ABC career would wind down at 'GMA.' Asked if she resented Gibson's hardball tactics, she told New York, "It's his life, and he has to love his work, too." If she wasn't going public with her disappointment, she wasn't exactly hiding it either, not with a non-denial denial like that one.

But when Gibson decided to retire this year, Sawyer got another shot. If it's true, as the Post reports, that Gibson wanted Stephanopoulos to succeed him, the 'This Week' host can't have commanded the kind of leverage in the executive suite that Sawyer does. If Gibson thought Stephanopoulos had a chance against Sawyer, that would be uncharacteristically naive. Still, the Post report rings true in suggesting that Gibson felt naming Stephanopoulos would have made the succession story about Gibson's own clout, but that Sawyer seizing the job made it about hers.

Instead, Stephanopoulos seems poised to be Sawyer's replacement at 'GMA.' No announcement has been made about that job yet, however, and according to the Post's source, Sawyer will make sure no announcement is made until after she takes over the evening anchor job at the beginning of 2010. In other words, no one is going to steal her thunder the way she stole Gibson's in September.

One paradox about all of this status-jockeying: the prize is to captain a sinking ship, to be the public face of the network news division at a time when network news audiences (particularly for the flagship nightly newscasts) are shrinking rapidly, thanks to 24/7 cable news and the Internet. As prestigious as it may be to helm 'World News,' no one who takes the job now or in the future will ever have as much prestige or national influence as Peter Jennings did (or Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather on NBC and CBS, when the three of them held sway for more than 20 years), and no news anchor will ever be as respected and revered as Walter Cronkite was before that. The pie slivers are too thin, and the mainstream media in too low repute, for the anchor chair to matter nearly as much to audiences as it does within the halls of ABC News.

Maybe what they say about faculty squabbles in academia is true of network news as well: that the fighting is so bitter because the stakes are so small.


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