Av Westin, one of the legends of the television news business, spoke in Buffalo on Feb. 20. Westin started as Edward R. Murrow's copy boy at CBS, worked for that network for a while and then jumped to ABC. It might be an overstatement to say Westin helped give ABC News credibility and legitimacy, but not a big one. He worked on the evening newscast and helped establish 20/20. Westin is still pretty sharp as he approaches 80.
The newsman gave a speech that lasted 30-35 minutes or so. The topic was the news business from Murrow to MSNBC. As you'd expect from that generation, he's not too happy with the state of the news business. When he started, news was something of a loss leader for the network, designed to give some prestige. Then, Westin said that it was discovered that news could deliver ratings and money -- not just to the news show itself, but the whole prime-time lineup.
It was a slippery slope from there, according to Westin. Costs were cut, standards were lowered, etc. That applies to the network and the local level. Let's face it, it's difficult to argue with him.
From there, Westin took questions for about 20 minutes. I posed the question, "If Katie Couric had called to ask if she should jump from NBC to CBS, what would you have told her?" The subject was on my mind after reading Howard Kurtz's book, "Reality Show" (see review here). I wondered if he thought that she needed to take the job for prestige, or if the power center had shifted to the morning programs from the nightly news.
His answer was none of the above, but no less interesting. After telling a story about how much Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner hated each other when they did the evening news together, he said he would have told Couric to stay put. One reason is that she's better in a more open format, in which she can free-wheel during interviews. If something needed to go an extra minute or two, it's easier in the morning. The nightly shows are rigidly structured -- in part because of tradition -- and it's hard to get away from it.
Then Westin added that she didn't think Couric was particularly good at delivering the news. She thought her interviewing skills weren't that good in that format. He personally watches ABC out of loyalty and NBC because he likes Brian Williams.
Always good to hear from those who have been around the block once or twice.