Former ABC News president talks tough calls at network

In his book Exit Interview, David Westin recounts his 14 years as president of ABC News. Westin, who entered his position with no prior journalism experience, describes his time in the newsroom during major events between 1997 and 2010, including the death of Princess Diana, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war on terror. Westin spoke with The Hill about some of these moments, and what he learned along the way.

Q: At the beginning of your job as president, you had opposing views with then-ABC News anchor Peter Jennings on running a prime-time special on Princess Diana following her death. What was that like?

Through my time at ABC News, I had the privilege of getting to know Peter very well personally and professionally. In my experience, his judgment was almost always right, but that first decision about whether to air that prime-time special on Princess Diana, we strongly disagreed on what I had decided. He called in late at night and said that if I went ahead with the special, no one would take me seriously as president of ABC News, which certainly was jarring. Here was somebody I had enormous respect for and really a legend in the news business, and he was telling me I was getting my first judgment call really badly wrong. … So it shook me, although at the time I thought I was making the right decision even though Peter was disagreeing. Then, as it says in the book, Peter called in the morning saying he read all the coverage and he had been wrong [and] I had been right and [he] wanted to anchor the special for us. 

Q: If you could pick, what would be your biggest regret?

Biggest regret was not pursuing even more aggressively the reports on WMDs in Iraq leading up to the 2003 war. 

Q: What was your proudest moment?

I was very proud of our 9/11 coverage — it was a tragic, horrific set of events, but nonetheless … the entire news division rose to the occasion. … I was very proud of the job we all did. It was a terribly important moment for the country and for the big news organizations to step in and remind us all why we have these great journalists working.

Q: You aired a children’s special on 9/11; you decided to stop airing footage of planes hitting the towers. Can you elaborate on why you decided to do that?

We decided we would do a Peter Jennings special … where he would take difficult grown-up topics and gather a group of children and experts in a large studio and have children ask questions about what was going on. … It was during the course of that special that one of the experts made the important point that children process information and video differently than adults. Every time they saw a video of the planes coming in and the buildings coming down, children might well think it was happening again. … From that day we have not shown a moving video of the attack. 

Q: What would you say the effect of social media has been on news reporting? 

Well, social media has changed news really fundamentally. … Social media specifically has two major effects. One of them — positive — is more access to information. We saw that, for example, with the Arab Spring, where people on the ground had access to people around the world to tell them what was going on. … Part of the challenge is the speed of it and the difficulty to vet it, because things go around the world instantaneously before people have a chance to check it out. … It’s a great opportunity to get access to wonderful information, but making sure it’s right is a lot harder.