TV Newsman Av Westin Takes a Hard Look at His Industry and How It Decides the News

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

"Television news has changed the way America is governed...the way America votes...the way America thinks." That is the opening salvo of a new and sometimes critical view of the broadcast industry by one of its own leaders, Av Westin, 53, the widely respected ABC News VP for program development. In Newswatch: How TV Decides the News (Simon and Schuster, $15.95), Westin offers a behind-the-scenes view of the medium he helped shape. His tidy office is adorned with awards and memorabilia collected over an auspicious television career that started at CBS in 1953. For the next 14 years he served as an editor, reporter, director and producer, and he inaugurated the CBS Morning News, anchored by Mike Wallace. After two years in public television, Westin joined ABC in 1969 as executive producer of the Evening News, and during his tenure at the network he developed the Closeup documentary series and helped design the World News Tonight format. Married and the father of one son, Westin is currently executive producer of ABC's 20/20 and oversees the network's most recent news show, The Last Word, which follows Nightline. Those two endeavors keep him ferrying between studios during a 15-hour day. For PEOPLE Senior Writer Kristin McMurran, Westin reflected on the news revolution he has witnessed.

How has TV news affected the way we think, vote and are governed?

Here are some examples. A President goes on television to present his case over the heads of Congress for an MX missile system. A senatorial candidate cancels a meeting with constituents—to do a TV interview that will reach far more people. We have become a video-educated nation of lazy people who have forgotten how to work for information, who have stopped reading newspapers, magazines and books.

Isn't that power dangerous?

Yes. Network news executives had better recognize that by having the power to decide what goes on the air, in what order and for how long, there is a responsibility to be fair, balanced and accurate. When we fail to do that, we are seriously affecting our fellow Americans.

How do you remain fair and balanced?

You don't use provocative language. You try to find articulate examples on both sides of an issue. If you are covering an ongoing controversial story such as the Vietnam vets or abortion, you don't always lead each night with the pro side of the story. Instead, you give each side a chance to go first.

Isn't there a tendency to sensationalize to grab an audience?

If network news were engaged in "police-blotter journalism"—covering every car accident to show blood and gore—it would be failing miserably. We used to do that and were correctly faulted for it. There's no doubt that it attracts an audience. I have a term—"How do you feel?" journalism—coined several years ago after watching a local reporter's coverage of a tragic Christmas Eve fire. It had wiped out an entire family except for the father. The reporter jammed his microphone forward: "Well, sir, how do you feel?" The man hit him.

When is TV news coverage at its best and when does it fail?

It captures the emotions of stories like an assassination attempt, a Beirut massacre, the real cost of a recession—superbly. It is beginning to cover complex stories that can benefit from graphs and charts—like economic news—moderately well. It hasn't done a very good job of covering geopolitical stories like SALT or the U.S.-vs.-Soviet gross national product.

What impact has TV had on political coverage?

It has made us far more cynical about politicians. No longer can a Senator make an ethnic slur in the north of a state without the southern part of the state knowing it. Presidents, Congressmen, mayors, police chiefs, even clergymen have all been exposed to coverage that provided unfiltered views of them as functioning officials. You can no longer introduce a campaign issue and let it sit unchallenged because some TV reporter will be pounding on the door of the other candidate and saying, "What do you think of that?"

Is TV news show business?

Television is show business, and TV news is part of television. We have a star system, and those stars emerge because they are credible. As long as show business techniques can be used to transmit information without distortion, I believe it's okay.

Do money and power attract a different breed into broadcasting?

They can attract the snake-oil salesman who says, "Oh boy, that sounds like something for me. I don't need any skill. I have a good voice, I look pretty." But increased salaries—in the six figures—are also attracting experts in ways that other fields wouldn't. A scientist, economist or lawyer who is articulate would not be ill served by going into TV.

What misconceptions about broadcast journalism bother you?

TV news never claimed to represent what an informed citizen needs to know. If people depend on it for all or most of their information, they are woefully underinformed because we leave stuff out. Viewers have cheated themselves by relying so heavily on television.

ABC News has been accused of being too flashy. True?

People don't watch news in a vacuum. We go on the air between slickly produced local news shows and entertainment programs, and in the middle are slickly produced commercials that stimulate our senses. If you come on gray in the midst of flashing color, you are going to look grayer and duller than if you come on and meet that color halfway. Now we have to be careful we don't substitute glitz for substance. When we do, we really fail the viewer.

ABC News President Roone Arledge chose you to reshape the Evening News. What was your game plan?

My first assignment in June 1978 was to separate Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters. People who tuned in wanted to see the news, not Family Feud. They were two people who had differences in style and whose demeanor on the air got in the way of their job. Then we put together three anchors because we didn't have one whom viewers thought to be as good as Walter Cronkite.

Should TV news be exempt from ratings?

It is absurd, but it is true that we all pay too much attention to ratings. The public may think that if you are No. 1 in the ratings on any given night, you must be doing the best broadcast. Nonsense.

How do you regard local "happy talk" news?

With disdain. Happy talk in its extreme almost destroyed the news business because it was substituting entertainment for content. But we needn't go back to the era of the very stern, dour anchorman. We do expect a certain amount of warmth and interest expressed in the story that is being reported.

How are network newscasts changing in the post-Cronkite era?

More of the techniques developed in local stations will be adapted. There are more graphic displays, a brisker pace, a more relaxed on-air demeanor. Dan Rather even shows up on camera wearing a sweater.

What impact has cable had?

Cable has demonstrated that there are enough people who want information at different times of the day who will even pay for it. That adds a major and positive competitive force to what we do. But it hasn't made sharp inroads into our audience. Network news will definitely not disappear.

Do you foresee an hour-long nightly network newscast?

There won't be an hour-long dinnertime newscast in the foreseeable future because network news has expanded into late night and early morning, which has taken the pressure off. But I never say never.

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