ABC anchor Charles Gibson has been reflecting on his journalistic career all week as he prepares to retire. In his own eyes, Gibson's 34-year career has been dominated by his time as Congressional correspondent and host of Good Morning America. He has presented the last leg of his career as anchor of ABC World News as something of an afterthought. Not here at Tyndall Report. We have given his performance as anchor our undivided attention. He took over the anchor chair in May of 2006. We ran the numbers on his 42-month tenure to measure its impact systematically.    
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CHARLIE THE ANCHOR BY THE NUMBERS ABC anchor Charles Gibson has been reflecting on his journalistic career all week as he prepares to retire. In his own eyes, Gibson's 34-year career has been dominated by his time as Congressional correspondent and host of Good Morning America. He has presented the last leg of his career as anchor of ABC World News as something of an afterthought. Not here at Tyndall Report. We have given his performance as anchor our undivided attention. He took over the anchor chair in May of 2006. We ran the numbers on his 42-month tenure to measure its impact systematically.

Here is a brief summary of his competitive performance; his news environment; his cadre of correspondents; his favorite stories and beats--and those he shortchanged; and his anchoring style.

In his capacity as managing editor, Gibson displayed less corporate clout in arm-wrestling with the accountants at the Walt Disney company than Katie Couric at CBS and Brian Williams at General Electric. Each day, in the struggle to preserve the size of the journalistic newshole against the demands for inventory by the network's advertising sales force, Gibson gave up more airtime than his rivals. Each evening the difference may seem tiny--45 seconds less than NBC, 35 seconds less than CBS on average. Over the years it adds up. During Gibson's tenure, ABC World News has aired a staggering 17 fewer hours of editorial content than NBC Nightly News; 11 hours fewer than CBS Evening News.

For 18 months or so of Gibson's tenure, ABC vied with NBC as the top rated nightly newscast. It is plausible that one reason why NBC was eventually able to ward off the challenge and regain its clear #1 position was that NBC offered not so much a better newscast, just more of it to watch. In the long run viewers cannot enjoy those endless pharmaceuticals ads. A newscast that offers fewer commercial reminders that our aging bodies are falling apart is bound to be more popular.

Gibson's newscast did not deal with its smaller newshole by jettisoning an entire category of content in order to keep other areas competitive with NBC and CBS. Instead ABC shaved a little here, a little there. For example, ABC spent less time than its rivals covering each day's headlines (4057 min on each day's Story of the Day v NBC 4276, CBS 4177) yet the proportion of its newshole that it spent on each day's #1 story was 24%, precisely the same as its rivals.

Similarly, under Gibson, ABC's allocation of resources for overseas coverage (28% v NBC 28%, CBS 26%) and for hard news (53% v NBC 54%, CBS 51%) was indistinguishable from the other newscasts even though it clearly trailed NBC in both categories in absolute numbers (4723 min on overseas v NBC 5058, CBS 4463; and 8880 min on hard news v NBC 9533, CBS 8805). ABC may keep the World in its newscast's name yet no vestige of Peter Jennings' internationalist specialty remains in its content.

Gibson's arrival in the anchor chair coincided with a spiraling crisis in the United States' military occupation of Iraq. The country was veering towards sectarian civil war in 2006 and the debate over war policy was intensifying domestically. Gibson's own predecessor in the anchor chair Bob Woodruff (in partnership with Elizabeth Vargas) had been exposed to that violence, barely surviving a bomb to the brain. Even though the Iraq War has retreated from the headlines over the past year, it was still intense enough at the beginning of Gibson's time in the anchor chair to be the most heavily covered single story of his entire tenure (the Top Ten, ranked in minutes of coverage from 29may06 through 30nov09, are compiled here; Tyndall Report's database of links to individual videostreams goes back to November 2006). Interestingly, when he recounted the major historical events to which he had been eyewitness in his recap of his career on Tuesday, the Iraq War was not mentioned. Instead Gibson focused on the #2--Barack Obama's successful campaign for President.

Iraq War: combat, debate, surge 763 min (NBC 865, CBS 753)
Campaign 2008: Barack Obama candidacy 293 min (NBC 277, CBS 290)
Afghanistan fighting 228 min (NBC 267, CBS 243)
Healthcare reform debate 212 min (NBC 177, CBS 228)
Automobile industry financial trouble 209 min (NBC 226, CBS 221)
NYSE-NASDAQ market action 204 min (NBC 248, CBS 248)
Financial industry bailout, regulation 188 min (NBC 167, CBS 158)
Influenza season: H1N1 swine strain virus 188 min (NBC 237, CBS 184)
Israel-Lebanon fighting 180 min (NBC 205, CBS 196)
Economy falls into recession 179 min (NBC 202, CBS 183)

For the record, ABC under Gibson covered Iraq as a whole--the war and other Iraq angles combined--less heavily than NBC (1229 v NBC 1299, CBS 1233) and Campaign 2008 as a whole less heavily than CBS (1508 min v CBS 1731, NBC 1569).

Obviously this Top Ten says more about the times in which Gibson found himself as anchor rather than his personal journalistic style and preferences. An anchor has more control over the selection of correspondents to assign to the news of the day and of what general topic areas to focus on--and to downplay.

The key reporters on Gibson's team have been:

Jake Tapper, from campaign to White House, 411 appearances (998 min)
George Stephanopoulos, for political analysis, 370 appearances (595 min)
Betsy Stark, on the financial meltdown, 272 appearances (600 min)
Jonathan Karl, from Pentagon to Congress, 268 appearances (574 min)
Lisa Stark, for the Beltway alphabet soup, 264 appearances (567 min)
David Muir, promoted from GMA, 260 appearances (590 min)
Dan Harris, for domestic assignments, 258 appearances (611 min)
Martha Raddatz, leader on Iraq and Afghan, 245 appearances (538 min)
John McKenzie, on the health beat, 211 appearances (453 min)
Brian Ross, investigations and exposes, 194 appearances (492 min)

Interestingly, of those Top Ten correspondents, three--Tapper, Stephanopoulos, Ross--have been trendsetters in making the transition from a purely broadcast role to being new-media, multi-platform brands. Tapper's Political Punch is a leading blog; Stephanopoulos expanded his Sunday morning This Week timeslot into an online Green Room destination; Ross had a major impact in the 2006 Congressional elections with his online coverage of Rep Mark Foley. Gibson himself frequently touts his World Newser blog but, in my opinion, it has made a minimal impact by comparison with those three. I wait to see whether Stephanopoulos' move to GMA will undercut his online impact. I suspect, unfortunately, it will.

I ran the numbers to check which stories ABC has made a special effort to to highlight during Gibson's tenure and which ones it has downplayed. To do this I ranked stories according to the amount of time ABC spent on them compared with its rivals (the average of the time allocated by CBS and NBC) to find Gibson's favorites, as it were, and those he gave short shrift. Top of the list came a Brian Ross story: the investigation into rendition and torture of suspects in the War on Terrorism by the CIA under George Bush's administration. It is curious that CIA torture should top Gibson's favorites since the anchor himself famously abandoned plainspeaking in introducing these stories, unable to allow the T-word pass his lips. For Gibson there was no torture, just harsh interrogation.


CIA rendition and torture 77 min (NBC 34, CBS 41)
Autism coverage 70 min (NBC 32, CBS 29)
Financial industry bailout, regulation 188 min (NBC 167, CBS 158)
Campaign 2008: Rodham Clinton candidacy 153 min (NBC 124, CBS 133)
Oil, gasoline pricewatch 165 min (NBC 130, CBS 155)
Breast cancer coverage 77 min (NBC 72, CBS 38)

Short Shrift

Iraq War: combat, debate, surge 763 min (NBC 865, CBS 753)
Hurricane Katrina aftermath 64 min (NBC 147, CBS 72)
NYSE-NASDAQ market action 204 min (NBC 248, CBS 248)
Iran politics: elections protested 51 min (NBC 85, CBS 74)
Afghanistan fighting 228 min (NBC 267, CBS 243)
Campaign 2008: VP Sarah Palin nomination 54 min (NBC 73, CBS 89)
NBC's Tim Russert dies 6 min (NBC 45, CBS 13)
Military mental health problems 36 min (NBC 43, CBS 75)
Campaign 2008: John McCain candidacy 177 min (NBC 219, CBS 180)
Influenza season: H1N1 swine strain virus 188 min (NBC 237, CBS 184)
Israeli-Palestinian conflict 76 min (NBC 92, CBS 104)

A cautionary note--the ranking of some of these stories does not signify a decision by anchor Gibson to make them a favorite--or to give them short shrift--but such a decision by one of his rival anchors instead. For example, NBC's Williams made an explicit commitment to New Orleans after the Katrina floods. Similarly, it would not be accurate to say that ABC undercovered Tim Russert's death; instead NBC, understandably, overcovered it. Both breast cancer and military mental health appear on these lists because of editorial decisions, con and pro, made by CBS anchor Couric not by Gibson.

That said, ABC's John Donvan has made the autism beat his own under Gibson's anchorship. ABC's decision to undercover the election protests in Teheran and the Israel Defense Force incursion into Gaza are clear examples of Gibson's rejection of Jennings' internationalist legacy. During the climax of Campaign 2008, ABC correctly made the decision that the financial crisis was more newsworthy than the Republican Party's prospects of retaining control of the White House, so Gibson gave priority to Betsy Stark to cover the AIG, Lehman Brothers, TARP and so on--and underplayed McCain-Palin, despite his success (here, here, here and here) at landing the first Palin interview.

The same calculation of favorites and short shrifters can be made according to broad topic categories. Tyndall Report tracks 17 major topics, which are posted annually in our Year in Review statistics--see the foot of the page. Obviously, over the 42 months of Gibson's tenure, the Economy (2324 min v NBC 2346, CBS 2469) has been the dominant domestic topic category with War (1414 min v NBC 1598, CBS 1461) hogging the overseas limelight.

Gibson's favorite topics, however, measured by his decision to give them more attention than his rivals, were less serious beats. As he himself declared in his Thursday valedictory feature Gibson is a "sports fan" so the appearance of Sports (649 min v NBC 494, CBS 588) atop the favorites ranking should come as no surprise. It is a backward-looking preference, suitable for a broadcast platform but not for multimedia video journalism. Sports coverage is the single area most vulnerable to cutbacks as news shifts online, since sports copyright holders frequently show contempt for fair use provisions.

Oddly, there is a pair of other topics that one would have imagined Gibson would have brought with him when he moved from GMA to World News--Sex & Family and Arts & Media. Sure enough, the former remained a specialty at ABC (683 min v NBC 582, CBS 622), as it had been under Gibson's predecessor Elizabeth Vargas. The popularity of such a female-oriented topic may be a residue of the famed lead-in on ABC, flowing from its affiliates' afternoon Oprah audience. Or it may not be. Oprah's interest in Arts-&-Media topics certainly failed to flow through to Gibson's newscast. It was a beat (720 min v NBC 884, CBS 996) to which he gave decisive short shrift while his former morning-show competitor Katie Couric has accorded it prominence.

The other topic that was starkly underplayed during Gibson's tenure was the Environment (328 min v NBC 526, CBS 435). This was partly a function of the corporate wide decision by NBC's bosses at General Electric to try to generate a green image, a grave example of corporate interference with editorial independence that is routinely ignored by anti-corporate media watchdogs, who often happen to be green-friendly too. Still, this does not let Gibson off the hook. His environmental coverage lagged far behind CBS too, which has no corporate ax to grind. There is no doubt that ABC's newscast has been eco-unfriendly under Gibson's stewardship.

Lastly, what about Gibson's anchoring style? He has been reluctant to go on the road, especially abroad. In his 42 months, he filed just a handful of reports from a foreign dateline (17 min v Williams' 78, Couric's 91). Yet Gibson's morning-show pedigree made him comfortable with the interview format (1183 min v Williams' 948, Couric's 853), often in the format of a two-way debriefer with an in-house correspondent such as George Stephanopoulos or physician Timothy Johnson. And the signature week-ending Person of the Week profile helped make Gibson ABC's most-heavily used feature reporter (693 min v Williams' 360, Couric's 687), usually narrating such packages from his New York City studio instead of on the road.

Charlie, let's hope you had a series of good days at World News and, from Tyndall Report, have a great retirement.