Traditional Path to Pinnacle for Charles Gibson

Apr 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

Just days after the award-phobic Charlie Gibson finally agreed to accept the prestigious Paul White Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association, he had the equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

Mr. Gibson, 63, the co-anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” went to see the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which opens and closes with former honoree Edward R. Murrow’s oft-quoted RTNDA speech exhorting his electronic news colleagues to use the medium to teach, illuminate and inspire, for, “Otherwise it is nothing but lights and wires in a box.”

Mr. Gibson’s reaction? “Oh hell, now I have to say something worthy of putting into a movie.”

The past year of turmoil in the upper echelons of network news offered no shortage of material for him to work with. But as of early this month, Mr. Gibson still hadn’t decided how he would use his “Good Night, and Good Luck” moment. Traditionally, it is an opportunity for an eminence grise of the industry to weigh in with sobering reflections on the state of the business.

In an interview just two days after CBS said it had hired his NBC morning competitor Katie Couric as the new “CBS Evening News” anchor for a reported $15 million annual salary, Mr. Gibson said he had been rereading past RTNDA award winners’ remarks and had found Fred Friendly’s 1986 speech especially interesting. In that speech Mr. Friendly said, “Reluctantly, I agree with [CBS anchor Dan] Rather: Of his ever having a serious, worthy successor, the odds are 50:50.” But of course, Mr. Gibson has no plans to comment on that. “Damn straight!” he said, laughing.

Still, he noted that in an era when most news division profits are made by morning shows, “It’s interesting here that CBS feels the need to shower as much money on Katie as they are. … I’m not smart enough to figure out what that means, not smart enough to figure out if they go up 2 points in the ratings, is that worth the equivalent of the gross national product of Romania? It’s a lot of money.”

The sum, he said, “bespeaks some fundamental change. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, and I’m certainly not going to try to figure it out in front of the news directors of America in Las Vegas.”

Instead, Mr. Gibson was leaning toward talking about the next generation of journalists and the career paths they are choosing.

Mr. Gibson himself took the traditional up-from-the-bottom route. After graduating from Princeton University, where he worked at the campus radio station, he said he planned to go to law school but that “They all decided the legal profession would be better without me.”

Impressing His Parents

Instead, he ended up in 1965 at the RKO Radio Network’s Washington bureau in a producing job given to him by the father of a friend. “My theory of life is that you try to prove to your parents that you’re worth a damn,” he said, and news was a career that would impress his news-junkie parents. He said he probably would have gone into print journalism, not broadcast, had he known how to spell and use proper grammar.

Mr. Gibson was convinced his first interview would be his last, when Michigan Sen. Phil Hart used an obscenity. “I was so scared I damn near dropped the microphone,” he recalled. “That was my first lesson: ‘Charlie, you can edit this out.'”

After a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, he got a trainee job at Washington’s WMAL-TV, now WJLA-TV, with a salary of $325 a month. Station owner Evening Star Broadcasting Co. soon sent him for more seasoning at its station in Lynchburg, Va., WLVA-TV.

It was the early days, technologically, when reporters would trade off with camera operators and the pictures over the anchor’s shoulder came courtesy of a slide projector. Conservative Lynchburg was in the midst of a fight over school desegregation, one of the era’s most compelling stories. Nearly 40 years later, Mr. Gibson can still rattle off the names of the players in the drama, from the high school principal to the undertaker.

“We were considered the communist liberals in town, simply because we covered desegregation and the black community,” Mr. Gibson recalled. Eventually, he said, he “got in trouble with the city fathers” for his controversial reporting, and advertising revenues were affected. So after three years, in 1969, he was called back to Washington. He anchored his final Friday newscast in Lynchburg and began the drive north, he said, only to have all four tires go flat 10 miles out of town because someone had tampered with them.

Doing the Necessary Stuff

His were the kind of formative experiences that today’s young journalists seem inclined to skip, Mr. Gibson said, noting the difficulty in getting younger reporters to spend time overseas or in bureaus before moving up to anchoring. “That stuff is all necessary,” he said. “I made every mistake it is possible to make, and the great thing about being down there is that nobody was seeing us make them.”

But today, he said, there are few incentives to report when cable news can offer endless anchor opportunities. “It’s a very strange profession, which rewards doing less. If you never leave the building, you can make great money and get more prestige,” he said. “The hard thing is to find people who love the work.”

Moreover, he said, he is dismayed by news directors who “get all these tapes and they hire the woman with the largest breasts and prettiest blond hair. I urge all these news directors to get writing samples and find out who can write and narrow it down to three people,” he said, and only then apply the cosmetic criteria.

“The most important determination you can make,” he added, is to “find out who wants to be on television and who wants the work. If the motivation is they want to be on television, don’t hire them.”

After three years reporting and anchoring at WMAL and a stint at the syndicated news service Television News, Mr. Gibson arrived at ABC News in 1975, where he covered Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign, national news and the House of Representatives. He was tapped for “Good Morning America” in 1987. He left in 1998, then returned in 1999 after the show floundered.

He has co-anchored “Primetime Thursday” and substitute-anchored on “Nightline” and “World News Tonight.” Along the way he has interviewed six presidents, anchored during the first hours of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, moderated the October 2004 presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry and won a duPont-Columbia Award for his 2005 coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

RTNDA’s decision to honor Mr. Gibson hinged partly on his “great versatility,” said Bob Priddy, a past RTNDA chairman who is news director for Missourinet, a statewide commercial radio network. The three-person selection committee was also impressed with his professionalism in stepping into the “World News Tonight” breach during the past year, in the wake of Peter Jennings’ death in August and, more recently, when Bob Woodruff was seriously injured while reporting from Iraq.

“He’s such a wonderful role model,” said RTNDA President Barbara Cochran. “He’s a great example of the important role that an anchor plays in being someone who can cover all kinds of stories, from things that are light-hearted to the most serious kinds of stories, and do it in a manner that is reassuring and approachable and very, very well informed.”

That kind of wide-ranging knowledge is becoming less valued, Mr. Gibson said, as television itself becomes more specialized, with channels for every niche interest and political leaning. He said he worries about “people talking to themselves. They gravitate to news organs that reflect their views.”