On Nov. 7, 2000, producers and editors at ABC News prepared to make a very public decision.
It was election night, with George W. Bush facing off against Al Gore. And it was, memorably, undecided until the early hours of the following morning, when other TV networks began calling the election for Bush.
David Westin, then the president of ABC News, recalls the agony as his network's elaborate election unit was beaten on the call — they had held back.
And then came more agony for Westin, after his network finally went along with everybody else, prematurely calling the election for Gore and then for Bush. "It's still relatively painful for me, I have to tell you," Westin tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
Bush did win, after a Supreme Court ruling more than 30 days later, but the reality on that night was an election too close to call. Westin writes about his network's mistake in his new memoir, Exit Interview. It chronicles his 14 years of running ABC News — and the changes in the news business since that night in 2000.
"We had worked really hard at getting it right. We'd spent a lot of money, we'd invested a lot, we had a lot of reporters on it," Westin says. But ultimately, he says, a combination of hubris and competitive zeal led to the election night disasters. "Take us back to 2:20 in the morning, when I'd seen that every other network had already projected for Bush, it would have been easy for me to say, 'Let's just sit this one out; we're already last.' I mean, who cares if we're last by five minutes or 50 minutes? But I was caught up in the control room with the same competitive juices flowing that everyone else had, and it was a mistake."
In the age of Twitter and the 24-hour Internet, Westin adds, it may not be that important anymore to be first. "Back when I was a kid and there were really only three networks, you would remember which one projected the president first. Now, no one remembers," he says.
And it's particularly hard for a modern news organization, even if it does have a scoop, to hold on to that exclusive long enough to turn a profit from it. The news business is increasingly unsuccessful as a business — although Westin is careful to distinguish between the kinds of headlines that quickly get picked up across every media outlet, and more complicated, in-depth investigative and documentary journalism.
"Our investment in bin Laden, and John Miller going in and interviewing him, and a lot of work with our investigative unit and others into terrorism and al-Qaida long before 9/11, I think, really did us well throughout my period there," he says. "This can keep going, and it's important for us that it keep going, and if we find it as a public, if we go to it, it will continue."
Westin says news organizations have to strike a balance between trusting their journalistic gut instincts and paying attention to ratings. "And paying attention to that doesn't mean just putting on whatever you think the audience wants," he says. "It doesn't mean pandering. But it does mean finding ways of telling stories that you think are worth telling that people will come to."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On November 7, 2000, producers and editors at ABC News prepared to make a very public decision. It was the night of a close presidential election, George W. Bush against Al Gore. And it was undecided until the early hours of the following morning, when other TV networks began calling the election for Mr. Bush.
David Westin, then the president of ABC News, recalls the agony as his network's elaborate election unit was beaten on that call, they held back. And then came more agony for Westin, after his network finally went along with everybody else.
The desperate race to be first and in the end...
DAVID WESTIN: Yeah.
INSKEEP: Everybody effectively ran into catastrophe. And in you guys not only had the catastrophe, you had it last.
WESTIN: Yeah, it's easy for you to laugh about this.
WESTIN: It's still relatively painful for me. I have to tell you.
INSKEEP: Bush did win after a Supreme Court ruling more than 30 days later, but the reality on that night was an election too close to call. David Westin writes about his network's experience in his memoir, "Exit Interview." It chronicles his 14 years of running ABC News, and you can sense how the news business has changed in recent years when you hear Westin talk of that night in 2000.
WESTIN: And we had worked really hard at getting it right. We'd spent a lot of money, we'd invested a lot, we had a lot of reporters on it. But ultimately a combination of hubris - because we just thought we were so smart and we'd had this figured out, when in fact we just hadn't had a really close election before was the truth - a combination of that hubris plus an overly competitive zeal really did us in, because take us back to 2:20 in the morning, when I'd seen that every other network had already projected for Bush, it would have been easy for me to say let's just sit this one out, we're already last. I mean, who cares if we're last by five minutes or 50 minutes? But I was caught up in the control room with the same competitive juices flowing that everyone else had, and it was a mistake.
And it also was a broader point, I think. We need to ask ourselves, particularly in this new world of cable, 24 hours and Internet and Twitter and Facebook, how important is it to be first anymore?
INSKEEP: Exactly the question that was on my mind.
WESTIN: I concluded, for example, on projecting presidential elections, I don't think it really matters. I don't think anyone remembers anymore who was first, because there are hundreds if not thousands of people who can be, quote, "first." And so it actually, I think, has shifted the importance for the main news outlets away from the urgency to be absolutely first.
Back when I was a kid and there were really only three networks, you would remember which one projected the president first. Now no one remembers.
INSKEEP: Then that leads to another thing, which is the difficulty of making the news business pay as a business. I am stating the obvious here when I say that it is harder and harder for news organizations to have something that they can call exclusive that lasts long enough for them to make a profit off of it.
WESTIN: Well, that's certainly true when you talk about things like projecting presidential elections. I don't think it is as true with enterprise journalism. I mean if we're talking about real investigative journalism, and some of the documentary work that's done and things, and I thought from my time at ABC News that actually it was money really well invested to have truly original reporting that no one else is reporting on.
INSKEEP: OK, let's try to make a distinction here then. The kind of news that quickly gets picked up by everybody else that only lasts for one second, then it becomes a commodity that you can't sell anymore, is something that's short enough to fit in a tweet - Bush wins - or whatever it is, and the kind of news you think that can last and make money is more complicated and harder to replicate.
WESTIN: Yeah, that is my experience from ABC News. And the good news is people are still doing it. I mean people bemoan what's happened with the explosion of new outlets and how the news is all going down scale. It's not true. It's just there's more of every kind of news.
INSKEEP: So give me an idea of some serious journalism, some of this more elaborate investigative or enterprise journalism that you were involved with that, in addition to being great, made money - clearly was a winner.
WESTIN: Our investment in bin Laden, in John Miller going and interviewing him, and a lot of work with our investigative unit and others into terrorism and al-Qaida long before 9/11, I think really did us well throughout my period there. This can keep going. It's important for us that it keep going. And if we find it as a public, if we go to it, it will continue.
INSKEEP: How do you guys measure whether a particular story is a success? Are you looking at the minute by minute ratings? Are you looking at the number of clicks on the Web? I mean how do you do that in a granular way?
WESTIN: I've always been wary of minute by minutes, those ratings a come in minute by minute. 'Cause minute by minutes can be the way they are for all sorts of reasons. It depends on what time of day it is, what the weather was, what other people had on.
INSKEEP: You can read too much into the numbers, that's what you're saying.
WESTIN: Absolutely, and there's a danger for us to do that. But you can tell over time whether audiences are growing in more general senses. We did - absolutely, you're right - as everyone else does follow on the Internet, traffic to our site. So you can get a pretty good sense, but there's no one single indicator.
INSKEEP: So in the end do you just have faith that certain stories were good and you're going to go with them? Or do you get overruled by the ratings god, however vague it is?
WESTIN: I wish it were so simple as to make a choice between those two.
The truth is, if you have editorial responsibility, you have to have an instinct and a gut and trust your gut and decide what is important and what's worth doing. At the same time, if you never pay attention to the ratings - I said this once to one of our big anchors, who said he didn't care about ratings. I said, well, if that's really true, then you're not a journalist, you're keeping a diary. Because if you're a journalist, you must want people to pay attention, and you must care about how many people are paying attention.
And paying attention to that doesn't mean just putting on whatever you think the audience wants. It doesn't mean pandering. But it does mean finding ways of telling stories that you think are worth telling that people come to.
INSKEEP: Well, help me understand it then because I think people imagine that the choice that you face, as a news person, is you're trying to do Golden Age Edward R. Murrow work, or you have sold out and you're doing commercialized or politicized schlock. And it sounds like you're suggesting that that's a drastic oversimplification. What really is the choice that faces a network president like you were, or a network anchor, or a network producer on a daily basis?
WESTIN: When I was at ABC News, I always said that our mission was to do the best journalism for the most people. And we had to do both.
INSKEEP: Although if I turn on the network morning program, I might just wonder what exactly people think the formula is. I mean is it like 30 percent serious news, 70 percent cooking and pictures of pets? I mean what is exactly the formula or approximately the formula that people would try to follow? What is the balance?
WESTIN: Go back to the golden era of journalism. That's always been true. I mean NBC had a chimpanzee or their morning program...
WESTIN: ...in the early days, right? I mean...
INSKEEP: But a very serious and qualified chimpanzee.
WESTIN: That's right, a dignified chimpanzee. So that's not a new phenomenon. The morning programs have always been a blend of news and entertainment.
INSKEEP: David Westin's new book is called "Exit Interview." Thanks very much.
WESTIN: Thank you. Great to be with you.
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And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.