David Westin came to ABC from the field of law. He was a law professor at both Harvard and Georgetown teaching international civil law and litigation. In 1979 he joined the firm Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering. He worked his way up to partner by 1985. He joined Cap Cities/ABC (now ABC Inc.) as general counsel in 1991; among his duties were labor relations and government relations. He became president, production in 1993. From 1994 until 1997 he served as president of the ABC Television Network. In that position he oversaw all divisions and program units at ABC including news and sports. He was named president of ABC News in 1997 succeeding the legendary Roone Arledge.
Arledge was the man who, first, took ABC Sports and made the then last place network a force to be reckoned with by making Wide World of Sports and Monday Night Football into regular parts of American life. He then moved over to the news division and performed the same magic there by building both a newsmagazine and nightly news slot that could more than hold its own with the more established and familiar NBC and CBS. Arledge was dynamic, original, daring, imaginative, intuitive, and he was all of that with a touch of class. No one can say that he was a major force in driving news and sports programming down to the remarkable level of tawdriness, slickness, vacuosness, and sensationalism that are the earmarks of the networks, and their cable outlets, today.
One cannot say the same about Westin. In public, Westin likes to make salutary and flattering remarks about his position and the duty of the news reporter. For instance, in March of 2003 he told a group of journalism students at Knox College that reporters should focus on "providing the most truthful information available to allow the viewing public to make up their own minds about major events" (The Knox Student, 4/9/03). He went on to say that newsmen should first provide the historical and political connections to develop an overall context around what is occurring. (Ibid) In October of 2001 at Columbia School of Journalism --- the equivalent in stature of Harvard Law School --- he made similar remarks, like "Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be and when we get into the job of what ought to be I think we're not doing a service to the American people." (Media Research Center, Cyber Alert 10/31/01). He went on in this vein by referring specifically to the 9/11 attack, "I can say that the Pentagon got hit. I can say this is what their position is, this is what our position is, but for me to take a position this was right or wrong ... I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on." He did add that it was OK for journalists to do so in their private lives.
Westin's laudatory ideals lasted about 48 hours. Or as long as it took the likes of Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh to start whacking him around on the web and on rightwing attack radio. After the Drudge-Limbaugh wedge tactic, Westin beat a hasty retreat. He backtracked and said he was wrong to make those remarks and said he was only illustrating a broad, academic principle and he apologized "for any harm that my misstatement may have caused."
Why did Westin genuflect to the likes of Drudge and Limbaugh? Two reasons surface when one takes a look at his tenure as news division chief. Unlike Arledge, and contrary to his public pronouncements, Westin does not like to take risks, and secondly his public posing is really posturing. There is a lot of evidence to indicate he doesn't mean what he says.
Significantly, according to television insider Danny Schechter, Westin represented Capital Cities when CC/ABC merged with Disney (Toward Freedom Magazine 1/99). Michael Eisner of Disney apparently liked Westin's negotiating skills and made him ABC's general counsel. It is under Westin that the antics of John Stossel have been given almost free rein. Under Westin, ABC reporter Jackie Judd reported many of the leads given to her by then Independent Counsel Ken Starr. As Steven Brill pointed out, Starr's leaking was in violation of the legal code. Yet lawyer Westin was apparently not bothered by this. According to the LA Weekly (11/22/02) Westin once killed a story reporter Brian Ross worked on showing how Disney's practice of not running criminal background checks at its theme parks allowed for the hiring of convicted pedophiles. When Ross defended his four month investigation and insisted it run, Westin replied with, "Are you crazy?" It was Westin who allowed the ABC News Division to leak all kinds of stories to the press in order to kill Kristina Borjesson's thoroughly researched story about TWA Flight 800, thereby sinking Oliver Stone's daring new concept for newsmagazines called "Declassified" (See Borjesson's Into the Buzzsaw, pgs. 133-36)
Then there was the Leonardo DiCaprio Earth Day interview in April of 2000. Teen idol DiCaprio is an environmentalist who had a friend at ABC's 20/20. They put together an idea about a walk through the White House with then President Clinton where Clinton could show how he put in several environmental improvements like new insulation etc. What happened was quite different: the young actor did a sit-down interview with Clinton. This of course, is the kind of stuff that Entertainment Channel or Access Hollywood would propose and hope for: a celebrity pushing his agenda by doing a softball interview on a serious subject with the most important politician in America. When word got out on what had happened, Westin went into a denial mode saying that it was the White House who proposed the interview format. But once Westin's denial hit the fan, the White House replied that they were not the ones who sent DiCaprio over to interview the President. It was ABC's idea from the start.
On the strength of Schechter's inside information, it would be wise to believe the White House and not Westin. In the above mentioned Schechter article, he describes a meeting of ABC producers which a friend of his attended. At this meeting, which was called and chaired by Westin not long after he took over for Arledge, Westin gave his soldiers their new marching orders. He stated that from then on their stories should integrate the "3 C's" as much as possible. What were Westin's three C's? According to Westin they were Celebrity, Calamity, and Censation [Sic]. Schechter protested that the last word begins with an "S". His friend replied with, "That's what he said."
With this kind of banal simplification and Westin's seeming enjoyment of skewering the alphabet to his troops it becomes pretty clear why he has overseen the double assassination of John F. Kennedy. He first chose to produce a documentary based upon Seymour Hersh's trashy and factually indefensible book The Dark Side of Camelot, and now he has allowed Peter Jennings to employ Hersh's assistant Gus Russo to assassinate not just Kennedy but Lee Harvey Oswald. This recycling of the Warren Report deception when the new evidence is now insurmountable that Oswald was an innocent man. As another attorney, Chief Counsel of the Assassination Records Review Board said, "I would rather be defending Oswald than prosecuting him." If Westin were to look at the evidence, his lawyerly background would probably make him come to the same conclusion.
But sadly, he is not an attorney anymore. And sadly, Arledge, who vetoed a similar report to Hersh's back in the eighties, isn't around anymore to supply ABC with both a vison and a conscience.