Westin: News Orgs Must Stay Committed to Investigative Journalism
ABC News president says depleted resources threaten First Amendment
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/5/2010 10:19:33 AM
And while ABC has announced major cuts and a restructuring of its news operation, he said news organizations needed to be committed to investigative journalism, beat reporting and long-form documentaries. He got a second on that sentiment from another network news president in attendance.
Westin was speaking to a room full of journalists after receiving the Radio-Television Digital News Foundation's First Amendment Leadership award.
The speech came a week after ABC announced deep staff cuts in a remake of their news operation, and on the eve of a scheduled meeting with staffers in the ABC Washington bureau March 5 to talk about that remake.
"As we gather here tonight, I can see no greater challenge to the First Amendment than the threats that are being faced by so many of our news organizations...threats to their ability to have the wherewithal to employ reporters and support them with the resources that they need."
He said those risks may be the greatest since the First Amendment was adopted in 1791. "We've seen some of our best news organizations face cuts, and sometimes wave after wave of cuts."
He said it was against that backdrop and with questions being asked about whether some big news organizations can survive at all, he announced a "major transformation" of ABC news.
He conceded that a "fair amount" of the analysis that went into that decision was about "how we could bring our costs into alignment with the revenues that we could expect over the next several years."
But he said it could not just be about the bottom line. "If we leave it at that," he said, "if we make this just about revenues, and costs and operating income then we have missed the larger and much more important point."
Westin said the point is that, while the news business has to change, "we must be very careful in choosing which changes to make to insure that we will always be able to tell the truth to the American people about the things that matter to them."
He said that meant more than simply reading wire copy or having a TV reporter standing next to a dozen other TV reporters saying the same thing, or airing video that everyone has already seen on broadcast or cable or the Internet.
Westin committed to enterprise journalism and investigative teams that have the "time and resources" to investigate the truth about people in power. And he said beat reporters would continue to be important to "sort through all that chaff to find the kernel of truth that no one else can find." He also said that the First Amendment requires long-form documentaries.
NBC News President Steve Capus had Westin's back. Capus, there to present the Len Zeidenberg First Amendment award to Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, said he wanted to give a "vote of confidence" to Westin, who he said had "spoken beautifully about the struggle to meet corporate-mandated budget cuts."
He said Westin's vision showed he had the right priorities. "We've all been there and I want you to know, David, that we all support you and are with you on this."
While Westin talked about the risks of an uncertain economic model, there was a more compelling example on hand of the inherent risks in defending the people's right to know.
Harvey Nagler, VP of CBS Radio and the First Amendment Service Award recipient had to hold back tears as he asked CBS Radio reporter Cami McCormick, injured while covering the war in Afghanistan, to stand and be recognized. He said that after months of surgery's and therapy, she was almost ready to return to work.
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