|“Slow and steady wins the race” is an adage that wouldn't seem to hold much currency in the world of television news. For Charles Gibson, it's been the signature of an exceptional broadcasting career.
After a 40-year climb, Gibson is on top. Long a familiar presence on ABC News as a correspondent, fill-in anchor and morning-news host, he has emerged as the network's name brand since becoming anchor of World News in May 2006. His warm, reassuring demeanor not only steadied a news division at sea over the death of anchor Peter Jennings; it helped ABC pull ahead in the evening-news race for the first time in a decade.
Were he not so modest, Gibson, a 2007 inductee into B&C's Hall of Fame, might consider a victory lap. But as friends and colleagues like to point out, “Charlie” is the ultimate team player.
“You can't work for an organization for as long as I have and not come to have a deep and abiding love for the place,” he says. “I've always said the day they fire me, I'm going to write a letter and say it's been a great, great run. And so far, they haven't done it. I'm beginning to think that call is not going to come.”
CHET AND DAVID AND DAD
Born in Evanston, Ill., Gibson was reading the Chicago Tribune at age 9 at the insistence of his news-junkie parents. The family got its first television when he was 12, after the Gibsons had moved to Washington, D.C.
“Dad and I would watch Huntley/Brinkley together every night,” he recalls. “To the extent that I have a theory of life, it's that you try to prove to your parents that you're worth a damn. So, I was attracted to the news business.”
Although he was news director of the radio station at Princeton, where he studied history, Gibson decided to pursue a career in broadcasting only after he was rejected by Yale Law School. “I was arrogant enough to think that if I didn't get into the law school I wanted, I wouldn't go to any,” he says. “I hadn't a clue as to what I was going to do, except I did think it would be intriguing to go into television news.”
After a short stint as a producer with RKO Radio Network back in Washington—and a brief tour with the Coast Guard—Gibson joined the trainee program at D.C.'s WMAL (now WJLA) in 1966. For $325 a month, he did “scut work” around the station, including cleaning up after Co Co the poodle from the kids show Claire & Co Co.
The following year, WMAL sent Gibson to be an anchor/reporter at sister station WLVA in Lynchburg, Va., where he rankled the city's segregationist element—including the Rev. Jerry Falwell—by covering the African-American community. Wayne Godsey, president/general manager of Hearst-Argyle's KMBC Kansas City, was a part-timer at the station and recalls Gibson as “a wonderful mentor and coach” who was “a very comforting guy both to watch and be around.”
When Gibson returned to WMAL three years later, he auditioned to be an anchor. Told he was “too preppy to make it on television,” he was sent to the station's radio outlet. Gibson instead took a leave of absence in 1973 to study law at the University of Michigan through a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship.
But after a year, with the blessing of his wife, Arlene, he returned to TV news, this time as a Washington correspondent for Television News Inc. (TVN), a syndicated service owned by Coors Brewing. It was his coverage of the Watergate hearings for TVN that caught the eye of ABC News' Sam Donaldson, and in 1975, the network hired him as a Washington correspondent.
In time, Gibson began filling in as anchor on Nightline and World News This Morning—in defiance, as he learned later, of ABC News chief Roone Arledge's edict that he should “never anchor any broadcast.”
“Roone was an extraordinarily good judge of talent, and he didn't like mine,” says Gibson. “He just didn't like the cut of my jib.”
Not everyone felt that way. In 1986, Philip Beuth, then an executive at Capital Cities/ABC, asked him to replace David Hartman as the male host of Good Morning America. “We were looking for an Everyman,” Beuth recalls, “a guy you could trust and call your neighbor.”
HARD NEWS FROM AN OLD SHOE
Gibson fit the bill and joined the next year. With his low-key, old-shoe delivery, he sought to bring a hard-news edge to the program, then part of ABC's entertainment division, and helped GMA pull ahead in the morning-news wars. But the show fell behind NBC's Today in the mid 1990s, a turn he attributes to GMA's stubbornly “high-minded approach” to O.J. Simpson coverage.
He left GMA in 1998, only to return the next year when ABC News President David Westin convinced him to re-launch the show with Diane Sawyer as co-host. Although GMA never caught up to Today, the show steadied under Gibson's presence.
The network again drew on that quality when World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings fell ill and died of lung cancer in 2005. Gibson provided a reassuring presence while pulling double-duty on GMA. And when World News co-anchor Bob Woodruff was gravely injured in Iraq, cutting short the dual-anchor experiment with Elizabeth Vargas that succeeded Jennings, Gibson was the obvious choice to permanently helm the newscast.
“The thing that was most important to me in the conversations that David [Westin] and I had was how this place had been rocked by Peter's illness and then by Bob's injury,” Gibson says. “This place needed to be steadied, and that's what I considered to be my charge.”
That Gibson's ascension has translated into winning ratings doesn't surprise KMBC's Godsey. “There has been such a rush to capture the young demographic,” he says. “But look who's winning today. It's the person who has been around, who has paid his dues. He has earned the respect and loyalty of viewers.”
What's more, Godsey notes, he has managed to balance the work with a “good, fulfilling family life” with his wife, two daughters and grandson.
For Beuth, the key to Gibson's success was evident in the commencement address he gave last June at Union College, Beuth's alma mater in Schenectady, N.Y.
“On his own, he called a half-dozen students and said, 'This is Charlie Gibson from ABC News. Tell me about your school,'” Beuth says. “That's the way he approaches things.”