BOB GARFIELD: When the press covers an event as delicate and polarizing as an execution, its every move is scrutinized. When ABC's Good Morning America announced that Charlie Gibson would anchor McVeigh's execution coverage from Oklahoma City, not Terre Haute, in consideration of the crime itself and of its victims, suspicion quickly bubbled to the surface: was this grandstanding or was it genuine sensitivity? And if it was sensitivity, did it portend a new relationship between journalists and the victims of the crimes they cover? David Westin is the president of ABC News. He joins me now.
DAVID WESTIN: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: In the New York Times a couple of days ago columnist Frank Rich took a nasty shot at Charlie Gibson's stated desire not to send the wrong message in execution coverage. He wrote: "Since when is a network news anchor's job to send a message, let alone by his choice of urban backdrop?" What's the answer to that question?
DAVID WESTIN: I was - I read that and was frankly surprised at Frank's comment, given his background and his experience. Every time we decide who the anchor will be and where the anchor will be and how they'll be situated we're communicating something with the audience whether we intend to or not, so, so it shouldn't be surprising to anyone that in deciding that it's going to be Charlie Gibson and that we're going to put it on in Oklahoma City that that was a substantive editorial decision and we're trying to convey meaning through it.
BOB GARFIELD: And why Oklahoma City and what meaning are you trying to convey?
DAVID WESTIN:Well the execution of Timothy McVeigh is a big issue and it's an important story for us to cover; it's an important story because a, a, a citizen is being executed, but in all honesty there are a number of those that happen around the country each year; this is particularly important because of what happened in Oklahoma City. We had not only 168 people killed which in itself is a significant story, but killed in a domestic terrorism act which historically in this country we've avoided for the most part unlike some other countries, so Oklahoma City really is the, the focal point for that.
BOB GARFIELD:There's this stereotype of the TV reporter thrusting his microphone in the victim's face and asking how do you feel, how do you feel? Do you train your reporters at ABC News, you know, not to be bulls in a China shop in the gathering of information, particularly a sensitive story like the Oklahoma City bombing.
DAVID WESTIN: Well we certainly talk about that, and we warn one another and caution one another about it. In all honesty I also talked to some of the people down in Oklahoma City in advance about how we would handle it with specifically the concern in mind that you identified -- at what point are we intruding on personal grief?
BOB GARFIELD:What happens when treading lightly around victims for example affects news coverage or even compromises news coverage? Have you seen that happen in any of your reporting to date at ABC News? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID WESTIN: No. There are times when unfortunately the need to report the story to the American people has to take precedence over individual sensitivities. We try to do that only when it's appropriate and only when it's necessary, but we will not compromise our coverage in the name of sparing feelings.
BOB GARFIELD:Beating The Today Show for example I suspect is a very important part of the lives of everyone at Good Morning America. To what degree does the decision of where to put Charlie Gibson play into your competitiveness with The Today Show and how do you think it's going to turn out?
DAVID WESTIN: We are very competitive. You're quite right. The specific decision with respect to Charlie was made, as I said, because I think it's the right editorial decision to make. I am hopeful that we can beat the competition, but that's a matter of what the right decision is rather than do we think it's going to get us more ratings or less ratings -- that, that never entered into the discussion and it certainly never entered into my thinking on the subject.
BOB GARFIELD: So if this should turn out to appeal to viewers on sensitivity grounds, that's just gravy for you.
DAVID WESTIN:Well, I-- Listen -- we always want to reach as many people as possible, but that was not the motivating force behind that. We're doing this because it's what we feel is most comfortable for us and also is most consistent with what we believe ABC News should stand for.
BOB GARFIELD: David Westin, thanks very much for being with us.
DAVID WESTIN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:David Westin is the president of ABC News, one of my three media employers in addition to Advertising Age and of course On the Media.