Over his 13 years as ABC News president, David Westin says his biggest regret was in not heeding Peter Jennings’ skepticism about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“We had all sorts of sources — reliable sources — telling us they were there, absolutely,” says Westin, whose memoir, Exit Interview (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), hits the stands today.
Jennings was not convinced, according to Westin. “I said to him, more than once, ‘No matter what happens, if the U.S. goes in there, they will find WMDs.’ Peter would say, ‘Don’t be so sure.’”
Despite his anchor’s deep expertise in the Middle East, Westin, like most news organizations in the free world, went with the party line. In retrospect, “I wish we’d dropped everything, assigned more people and pushed harder,” he says. “We’d all be better off.”
Westin was at the helm for numerous historic events during his 1997-to-2010 run at ABC – an extraordinary tenure in the modern news era. Behind the scenes, he spent much of his time trying to balance corporate’s demand for more profit with the needs of a world-class news operation.
It was a tough balancing act, even for someone who kept his eye on nine TV monitors on his office wall.
“An important part of my job was to remind the news division it was a business, and we had to be mindful about how we spent our money,” Westin, 59, says. “I also reminded corporate [Disney] that news was more than a business. We made decisions regularly because it was the right thing to do.”
In February 2010, the right thing to do, corporate-wise, was to cut the news division’s 1,500-person staff by a whopping twenty-five percent, mostly through buyouts. It was an ugly day for Westin.