Privilege and Power: The Rise and Rise of Ben Sherwood

How Ben Sherwood’s drive and ambition just won him the top job at Disney/ABC.

When Ben Sherwood presided, as usual, over Tuesday’s 9 a.m. ABC News conference call—having red-eyed from Los Angeles, where he’d just been promoted to president of the Disney/ABC Television Group—he was greeted by two minutes of raucous applause.

“It was the greatest contrast to the scene when Ben walked in here as president of ABC News in December 2010,” said a colleague who joined around 40 staffers crowding the news division’s fifth-floor conference room, along with hundreds listening in from bureaus around the world. “Back then, people were frankly skeptical, and did not know him well. There was a feeling when he got here that the best days of ABC News might be behind it, and that he was here to turn out the lights.”

In addition to in-house angst, Sherwood’s arrival in New York as the freshly minted head of the news division—after several years away from television journalism to return to his hometown of Beverly Hills, Calif., where he wrote books and looked after his ailing widowed mother—was accompanied by relentlessly negative publicity.

The snarky web site Gawker.com posted several items accusing Sherwood, now 50, of all manner of bad behavior; there was a lacerating video lampooning the new boss, allegedly made by disgruntled ABC News staffers. “Nobody likes Ben Sherwood, a notoriously self-promoting former Good Morning America executive producer who was recently, and inexplicably, placed in charge of ABC News,” one item memorably began—and went downhill from there.

Most painfully, the The New York Times resurrected a merciless, 25-year-old hatchet job by Andrew Sullivan (a former blogger at The Daily Beast) in Spy magazine, describing then-Rhodes scholar Sherwood, a 24-year-old Harvard grad, as a crass, ticket-punching, nest-feathering careerist who’d do anything to get ahead. Sullivan’s piece, headlined Resume Mucho, included lots of over-the-top blind quotes from Harvard classmates and other Sherwood detractors. Typical slam: “It was a common bond among my class at Harvard, hating Ben Sherwood.”

In his interview with the Times, Sherwood didn’t bother to argue with the Spy article’s characterization, but instead displayed a healthy degree of self-awareness. “I don’t think there is a person in the world who would want to have their college persona written about and described in a satire magazine,” he said. “Every time I get a new job I’ve walked through an office into my new role and someone ‘accidentally’ left out a crinkled copy on a desk.” He added: “What I do know about that time was I was a guy with a lot to learn.”

Even his detractors might note that it’s not every TV executive who is also an accomplished journalist and author of both fiction and non-fiction. One of his novels, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, was adapted into a movie starring Zac Efron.

In the Times piece, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, for whom Sherwood had worked during several years at that network, seemed to confirm the impression of an unusually ambitious (even for the TV biz) climber. Sherwood told the paper he left his job as the No. 2 producer of the NBC newscast in 2002 because “one of the things about my path is that there are moments where I want to go do something different.” Brokaw, however, insisted: “He didn’t stay because he didn’t get the No. 1 job at Nightly News.”

His reputation at NBC was less than endearing, according to a former colleague from that network. “He was amazing at managing up,” the NBC-er recalled. “He was definitely known as a kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy.”

On Tuesday, it was a completely different vibe after Disney chairman and chief executive Robert Iger announced, with effusive praise, that Sherwood will be replacing Anne Sweeney as of January 2015—and working side by side with her until then helping to run Disney’s various media properties, including ABC’s entertainment division. During the conference call, Sherwood showed appropriate humility.

“He said he believed that this opportunity was happening for him because of the incredible, sustained work of all sorts of people across the news division,” the ABC News colleague told The Daily Beast. “He said these things are only possible because of what you all do, and he was certainly humbled by that. The reaction was warm applause, a lot of clapping and cheering.”

Sherwood grew up as a child of privilege—his father was a prominent and well-connected lawyer, and there were servants in the house—and it seemed to outsiders that he led a charmed life: posh private schools, famous friends, endless opportunities. He was one of those lucky folks for whom Texas populist Jim Hightower might have coined the phrase: “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

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And yet, even Sherwood’s critics conceded that, while he may have appeared pompous and arrogant at times, he was also smart, resourceful, talented and terrifically hard-working, and his good fortune was tempered by terrible tragedy. As the Times profile recounted, on a August 1992 reporting trip to war-torn Sarajevo, Bosnia, he watched an ABC News colleague die of a sniper’s bullet, sitting beside him, in a Volkswagen van that was trailing correspondent Sam Donaldson in an armored vehicle on a famously dangerous road.

Eight months later, Sherwood’s 64-year-old father suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. “The double whammy of those two set me on a course of thinking about issues I had never done before,” Sherwood told the Times.

A second ABC colleague said Sherwood “has better EQ—emotional intelligence—than most people I know. He’s a very emotional and caring guy. I was walking around the building yesterday and there was genuine pride and excitement for him. People felt, ‘that’s pretty cool.’ ”

This person also praised Sherwood’s skills as a media executive. “Nobody else I’ve ever seen can go high and low at the same time like he does. He can operate at 30,000 feet or on the ground with equal dexterity and equal enthusiasm—both from the balcony and on the floor, focusing on the most minute detail and these gigantic pieces in the puzzle. He’s that dexterous, and it’s breathtaking.”

If true, that talent will serve Sherwood well in a job that spans every knotty issue from ABC Television’s prime-time entertainment programming, to ESPN’s negotiations with cable carriers, to the development of the Latino-focused Fusion network, to the network’s relationship with Yahoo. The ABC publicity machine, meanwhile, is giving Sherwood much credit for the recent ratings dominance of Good Morning America over NBC’s Today show—a circumstance that can be equally attributed to NBC’s ham-fisted firing of Today host Ann Curry and the negative viewer fallout.

A few critics have pointed out that when Sherwood was directly in charge of GMA as executive producer a decade ago, it remained an also-ran against the rival morning show, although there were moments when it came within striking distance.

Others have noted Sherwood’s similar career progression to that of current CNN president and former NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker, a Harvard friend of Sherwood’s who excelled at NBC News, especially as executive producer of Today, only to turn in a middling performance at successively more important, richly compensated jobs.

Will Sherwood, like Zucker, end up being widely perceived as failing upward? Sherwood’s supporters say the comparison doesn’t wash, because unlike Zucker—who famously clashed with the culture of Hollywood when he ran both the television network and the movie studio—Sherwood is part and parcel of that culture. Besides one of his books being turned into a Hollywood movie, his wife Karen is a top executive at Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment.

He might very well succeed in the new gig, and, if the past is any guide, given his ambition, even bigger things might be ahead. “Ben Sherwood is a type,” said the former NBC colleague. “Bob Iger better watch out.”