09.06.10

Who Pushed ABC News' Chief?

David Westin may have had friction with Disney/ABC President Anne Sweeney, but things had been tense with Disney CEO Bob Iger for years. Peter Lauria and Lloyd Grove go inside his resignation.

David Westin’s departure from the helm of ABC News after 13 years is the result of both personal and professional friction with a superior, but it’s not Anne Sweeney. She’s just the scapegoat. It’s Disney CEO Bob Iger who has long had Westin in his crosshairs.

Iger always positioned himself as an ally to Westin while Sweeney, president of Disney/ABC Television, was out front taking the bullets for such things as the hiring of the now-departed Dave Davis, an outsider whose hiring as the No. 2 to Westin sent a culture shock through a news division that long groomed network insiders for executive positions.

The very real friction with Sweeney overshadowed the fact that Westin’s relationship with Iger had its own tension.

Sweeney even bore the brunt of the criticism for the corporate mandate to make ABC News more profitable, which included a workforce reduction of 25 percent, or around 400 people. She looked like the corporate henchwoman even though the mandate came from Iger. (And Westin was forced to carry out the reduction, before his departure.)

“This has nothing to do with Sweeney, this is 100 percent Bob,” says a source with direct knowledge of Disney’s decision-making. “Bob deals with Westin directly. It’s him, not Sweeney, who is on the line to ABC News on a daily basis.”

It’s worth nothing that Sweeney, whose own friction with Westin kept their relationship from rising above anything but cordial, sent her own memo. A Disney representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“While it will be sad to see David leave, his desire to pursue other professional endeavors is understandable, and commendable,” wrote Sweeney in the memo, which was obtained by The Daily Beast. She also said Westin “helped reinvent our news organization” and was a “tireless advocate for ABC News.”

Sweeney did not have the muscle or influence over Iger to get him to remove Westin, says the source. Iger was the lone person at Disney who could unilaterally force him out—or, in this case, “accept his resignation.”

Iger, meanwhile, has been growing tired of ABC’s performance for a long time, and just as he expressed his displeasure with Disney’s movie studio by ousting longtime boss Dick Cook and most of his staff, he’s now remaking the broadcasting network. First came the move a few years ago to put ABC’s television network and studio under one roof, which cut costs and improved profit margins. Earlier this year, perhaps influenced by a internal investigation into personal misconduct, reported by The Hollywood Reporter and others, he got ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson to resign.

If taken at his word, Iger may not even be convinced that Disney needs ABC at all. At the company’s annual shareholder meeting this year, Iger gave ABC a perform-or-perish warning when he responded to a question about selling or spinning off ABC by noting that all of the company’s assets were subject to strategic review based on operating performance. Indeed, according to a veteran executive of ABC News, Iger and Sweeney assigned Westin to make a cable deal for ABC News, possibly to partner with CNN, but he never got talks off the ground.

“There was nothing going on, no negotiations at all,” says this source. “Without a cable partner, ABC News is kind of doomed.”

Westin appeared blind to the tea leaves, however, making quixotic moves like hiring Christiane Amanpour in the wake of the employee bloodletting at a reported $2 million to $3 million to anchor This Week.

The very real friction with Sweeney overshadowed the fact that Westin’s relationship with Iger had its own tension, with roots that trace back to just before Westin was appointed president of ABC News—nominally reporting to the legendary Roone Arledge—in March 1997. According to the ABC News veteran and others, rumors were circulating within the network at the time that Iger asked the married Westin point-blank if he was having an affair with the married Sherrie Rollins, a senior vice president of ABC News, which he denied. (Westin and Rollins later came out publicly and eventually got married.)

Westin’s impending departure leaves ABC News without a clear successor. Davis, his former No. 2, already decamped; another senior executive, Phyllis McGrady, is in transition as she takes some time off. Iger could once again go outside the news division to find its new leader. He’s done so before, replacing Cook at the movie studio with cable executive Rick Ross, and McPherson with Paul Lee, another cable executive. Unlike Westin, a long-serving broadcast executive, the executives in the ascendant under Iger—i.e., the cable executives—are the ones now driving Disney’s profits.

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.