“Exit Interview” (Sarah Crichton Books), by David Westin
As president of ABC News from 1997 through 2010, David Westin guided the network through an impressive list of history-making stories: the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the 2000 election, 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In “Exit Interview,” Westin takes readers behind the cameras for his post-mortem on the job. It turns out that what was going on behind the cameras was just as interesting as the stories unfolding in front of it. Westin lets readers in on the back story around a report that Monica Lewinsky had a blue dress possibly stained with President Clinton’s DNA, talks about negotiating with Fidel Castro to give ABC an exclusive interview in 2002 and goes over the near-death experience of ABC anchor Bob Woodruff in Iraq in 2006. He isn’t afraid to air disagreements, either, like the phone call he got from anchor Peter Jennings after the death of Princess Diana. Jennings questioned Westin’s news judgment for ordering a prime-time special on the princess. (Jennings later agreed he’d been wrong.)
Along the way, Westin subjects his own decision-making to a refreshingly critical eye, defending some decisions and acknowledging other mistakes. For example, he stands by his edict after 9/11 that ABC reporters would not be allowed to wear flag pins on their lapels, as anchors at Fox News were doing. Bush administration officials were also wearing the pins, and Westin didn’t want ABC reporters wearing an item that “appeared to be part of the administration’s uniform while they were questioning whether the administration was doing its job.” At the same time, he acknowledges that he responded badly when ABC was criticized for having actor Leonardo DiCaprio interview President Clinton for an Earth Day special.
Westin notes that when he took on the news job at ABC, some had their doubts about a “corporate lawyer” leading a group of journalists. Yet, throughout the book, Westin comes across as extremely thoughtful about the news and profoundly committed to telling interesting and difficult stories, even when doing so is expensive.
It would have been nice to read a little bit more of what Westin did on a day-to-day basis. But, overall, anyone who watched open-mouthed at the news of the last decade will appreciate Westin’s behind-the-scenes footage.