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Shuttle disaster exposes ABC News weaknesses

Feb 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Though Aaron Brown’s decision to continue playing golf instead of rushing back to the anchor desk at CNN when the Columbia exploded got a lot more attention, it was would-be merger partner ABC that was the last to get all of its news cylinders firing. In fact, when news broke people turned to CNN, which has suffered in slower news times as viewers turned to the talking heads on Fox News and elsewhere.
In the wake of the tragedy, it was left to ABC, a division of The Walt Disney Co. that had undergone significant budget cuts in recent months, to reassure its affiliates that in the future it would be better prepared if a major story broke in the early weekend hours, when ABC does not regularly schedule news.
As happened with the explosion at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, ABC News was the last news organization to muster up full coverage. This time it was due to a number of problems, including a studio that wouldn’t fire up, a satellite that wouldn’t link and a shortage of anchors in the bullpen.
In 1996, it was ABC News President Roone Arledge who vowed it wouldn’t happen again. Last week, it was ABC News President David Westin’s conceding to affiliates that mistakes had been made and vowing that the problems would be corrected and drills would be held regularly in the future.
By numerous accounts, Mr. Westin kicked a lot of backside last week at ABC News, where weekend-duty correspondent Bill Blakemore held down the fort in a tiny flash studio in New York City while anchor Peter Jennings made his way in from Long Island.
Compounding the problem was that the network’s usual anchor backups were way out of reach: Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer had to be called back from Turkey, where they had gone for “Good Morning America”; and weekend “World News” anchor Elizabeth Vargas is on maternity leave.
One of Mr. Westin’s chief challenges will be keeping ABC News on standby on Saturday mornings, when the network produces no national newscast, without wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars.