At ABC News, Nothing’s Easy: Leaker Hunted

At a Nightline staff meeting last week in Washington, ABC News correspondent John Donvan raised the question that was haunting the network news department: “What exactly did John do wrong?”

DAY

Mr. Donvan, who had been out of town, meant it as a factual question to get himself up to speed. He was referring to John Green, the executive producer of the weekend version of Good Morning America. On March 31, Mr. Green was suspended for a month without pay, after a pair of old e-mails he’d written—bluntly disparaging George W. Bush and Madeleine Albright—were leaked to the Drudge Report and the New York Post.

Sources inside and outside the network have privately expressed doubts about Mr. Green’s ability to survive this suspension. “When people leave for a month,” said one ABC source, “they don’t always come back.”

“That’s nonsense,” said an ABC executive. “We’re looking forward to John’s return. He’s a great producer, and we’re looking forward to putting this behind us.”

“What we can learn from this,” executive producer James Goldston told Mr. Donvan, “is: Watch what you write in your e-mails.”

Another lesson: Don’t use your work account to say that the President “makes me sick” or the former Secretary of State has “Jew shame.”

But mainly, as Mr. Green’s colleagues rifle through their own outboxes to see what job-endangering phrases they might have tossed off, the lesson at ABC is: Watch whom you write your e-mails to.

There would have been no scandal, after all, if one of the recipients of Mr. Green’s back-channel e-mails hadn’t allowed the messages to go public.

Television news divisions have always been tough on leakers. Two ABC sources said that an internal investigation into the leak is believed to be ongoing, though a network spokesperson declined to comment on how hotly executives may be pursuing it.

Early suspicions focused on what a number of blogs and The Washington Post called a “disgruntled former employee” of weekend Good Morning America—a man who had a well-known beef with Mr. Green and who was dismissed two weeks before the e-mails surfaced.

Contacted by telephone, that man—though he was indeed disgruntled—vehemently denied any part in the leaking.

He said he’d received a phone call at 4:10 a.m. the day after the Drudge leak, at the house that he shares with his mother. By his account, the voice on the other end said only “We know you’ve been talking to Matt Drudge—you’re the source,” and then hung up. The former employee said he has asked Verizon to trace the call and is now going through “legal maneuvers” to acquire the number.

In the weeks that followed, the man’s name has flown around television and other journalism circles without actually being printed anywhere. The man said he received a letter on April 7 from ABC’s legal department, reminding him of the network’s privacy policy and asking him to return confidential e-mails, audiotapes and other documents.

NIGHT

Almost exactly one month ago, ABC News president David Westin took Charlie Gibson to lunch to discuss the Good Morning America anchor’s much-anticipated move to World News Tonight.

At the meal, according to three sources close to Mr. Gibson, Mr. Westin explained his unenviable position: He was committed to the newly unveiled and presently unsustainable two-anchor format, he said, because he believed it would work. Because he believed that she is talented (and because it’s in her contract), he wanted Elizabeth Vargas to continue as one of those two anchors. And that’s where good ol’ Charlie came in. Mr. Gibson, if he could find it in his heart to take half the desk he once came so close to having all to himself, would be the other—that is, until Bob Woodruff, the chair’s rightful occupant, had recovered enough from his Iraq wounds to return.

It wasn’t exactly $50 million and a place in history, but Mr. Gibson expressed interest. In a follow-up conversation that week, according to the sources, Mr. Westin implied that a draft of a new contract would land on Mr. Gibson’s desk any minute. Executives had discussions about how to break the news. Gossip columns held forth on the 63-year-old company man’s impending and well-earned ascent. NYTV reported that Diane Sawyer was lobbying for Mr. Gibson.

And then, once the buzz had reached a fever pitch … nothing.

Minutes—then hours, then days—came and went, and no contract landed anywhere. Mr. Westin left for a vacation. Major announcements came from CBS and NBC. Katie Couric became anchor of the CBS Evening News. A day later, The View’s Meredith Vieira took her spot on Today. All the while, ABC was mum.

“It seemed like we were on the cusp of something,” said one World News Tonight producer, “and then it all just ground to a halt.”

But within the news division, things were still moving, albeit slowly, and mostly in the opposite direction. While their competitors drafted exultant press releases about their various talent coups, ABC spent a week managing the very public Green mini-scandal and then went back to staring at its anchor-chair Rubik’s Cube. Mr. Westin has spent his time issuing periodic updates on Mr. Woodruff’s recovery, including four encouraging photographs of the anchor, injured in January in Iraq, that were released last Friday on the network Web site. But the Woodruff family has kept ABC executives at a distance, according to three sources, allowing only a select few to visit or speak with Mr. Woodruff, who is now recuperating at a private facility and at his New York home.

In an e-mail on March 16, his most recent missive on the situation, Mr. Westin wrote to the news division: “Elizabeth and the WNT team will continue to hold down the fort while Bob makes his recovery. We laid out ambitious plans for the broadcast earlier in the year, and we are working on ways to move that plan forward during this interim period. Having the best team in the business, I’m thankful we can take the time we need to do what’s best for WNT.”

Among those growing impatient with the lack of at least a permanent temporary solution to the World News Tonight quandary are the general managers of many ABC affiliates around the country. A powerful collective whose happiness the network seeks to maintain at virtually any cost, the managers will be meeting in New York on May 16 and 17, coinciding with the network’s “upfront” presentation. Generally pacified by ABC’s strong prime-time line-up, some have started to bristle at the news division’s delays, although World News ratings have stayed fairly steady. For the week of April 3, the latest for which ratings are available, ABC’s evening newscast came in second overall but first in the 25-54 demographic.

“I’d like for them to be able to tell me that, barring changes by God or whatever, this is our plan for ABC News going forward,” said Dale Nicholson, the general manager of KATV in Little Rock. “I think it’d be nice of them to do that.”

Mr. Nicholson, who has worked for 44 years at his local ABC station and is a former member of the ABC affiliate board, said he maintains his ratings, even as the national newscast struggles, by preempting news programming with local sports. Many of his fellow G.M.’s, he said, are not so fortunate.

“If you’re a weaker station and you lose a Peter Jennings, and they can’t settle on who to replace him with, then you’re in trouble,” he said. “But I’ve got Oprah leading into my 5 o’clock local news, and I’ve gotta tell ya, nobody’s gonna beat Miss Oprah right now.”

LATE NIGHT

The one show Mr. Nicholson often shuffles out of its time slot, because of a special arrangement with the network, is Nightline. “I don’t care for it,” he said. “I play an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond instead.”

Actually, Nightline is the only ABC News broadcast that exceeds expectations these days, drawing about 3.5 million viewers a night. Ratings are up over Ted Koppel’s a year ago, overall and in the 25-to-54 demographic, which is up a whopping 9 percent. Last week, the 11:35 p.m. news program came breathtakingly close to beating The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS. Evidently, there’s some form of television news young people are interested in.

According to two network sources, this exhaustingly paced live broadcast, which seemed on the verge of cancellation last spring when Mr. Koppel announced that he was leaving the network, has consequently received a small boost to its budget.