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Reactions To Westin's Suspension

February 28, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Former "20/20" correspondent Sylvia Chase was shocked at the news, former CBS News chief Richard Salant wasn't, and one network source thought that Av Westin, although in trouble now, may eventually return to work at ABC News.

Such were some of the reactions in the wake of ABC News President Roone Arledge's "indefinite" suspension Thursday of Westin, his Emmy-winning vice president of program development and executive producer of "20/20."

Arledge, who wasn't available for comment Friday, gave no public reason for his action. But sources said it was due to his anger over two things:

--An unpublished but now well-publicized 18-page article by Westin that criticized ABC News operations as the victim of its own prosperity. ABC News was characterized as inefficient, unfocused in some ways and in need of a "redesign" to yield both more thoughtful journalism and efficiency now that lean economic times have hit all three networks.

--That Westin (a) widely circulated his article within ABC News, leading to its leak to the press, and (b) he went over Arledge's head by sending the memo to the cost-conscious top executives now running Cap Cities-ABC.

Westin, who last year had a behind-the-scenes dispute with Arledge when the latter axed a "20/20" story reinvestigating the death of Marilyn Monroe, wasn't available for comment Friday. But he has said he never intended his article--which he once planned to offer to Channels magazine--as a criticism of the man who has run ABC News since 1977.

Chase, who had reported the Monroe story and left ABC News in January a year ago, said she hadn't read her former boss' article but was "shocked that he's been suspended. . . "

"I feel sure that he meant no offense," said Chase, now an anchor at KRON-TV in San Francisco. She praised Westin as "a wonderful guy to work for" and an executive who "has taken low-budget projects and made successes of them. And I'm sure he was trying to be positive about how that might be done at ABC."

Westin's current troubles aren't the first time he's gotten in hot water for something he wrote, noted former CBS News president Salant, for whom Westin once worked in the 1960s.

Westin, Salant said, wrote him a long memo--Westin has said Salant asked for it--analyzing CBS News operations. The memo also sharply criticized two top news executives in the division, William Leonard and Gordon Manning. It led to Westin's exit from CBS, where he'd worked for nearly 20 years.

"I told him (Westin) goodby," Salant said. He emphasized that he thought "Av is a very, very able guy . . . he's awfully good. He's done some great work for me. But he's like Cassius --he has that lean and hungry look."

Some at ABC say that Westin, 57, wants to be head of ABC News should Arledge ever step down. One ABC source who admires Westin theorized on Thursday that the news producer's ambition played a part in the dispatching of his thoughts on ABC News to ABC's corporate chieftains.

Ten days ago, the source noted, a rumor swept the news division that Arledge was leaving. Although such rumors periodically come and go, the source said, "I think Av decided it was time to issue his position paper and run for Roone's job."

But frustration may also have played a major role, another insider said: "I can see that kind of frustration in Westin-- who is a brilliant producer--who wants to take ABC News, as do a lot of people, out of the Neanderthal age, to get them to think about things, to plan things."

One executive close to the situation said that Arledge last year thought so much of Westin that he got the producer a salary hike as part of a new three-year, no-cut contract--even though ABC's new, tight-with-a-buck owners, Capital Cities, hadn't initially wanted his salary raised.

Arledge still has a high regard for the veteran producer, the source said, but when Westin took his critical analysis of ABC News outside the division, Arledge had to do something.

The news divisions of all three networks know that because of today's flat advertising market they are facing staff cuts, leaner operations requiring less expensive and more efficient ways of gathering and presenting news in a manner that is distinctive from local newscasts, he said.

While making this reassessment and considering options, the source said, "we've been very proud of the fact that while CBS News and NBC News have been all over the newspapers with their internal problems, we haven't," he said.

"And we haven't for a very good reason. It's easier to deal with management if you're not proclaiming your problems all over the front pages of newspapers."

In addition to airing criticizing of ABC instead of keeping it internal, he said, Westin's article, "Days of Penury, Days of Affluence," angered some of the mid-level ABC News executives who either took umbrage at Westin's complaints or thought he was taking credit for ideas they had proposed.

All of this finally led to the producer's suspension from all his duties, the source said. But he added that Arledge was hoping "that we can employ his talents again."

In other words, let Westin cool his heels, think things over and have the possibility of returning some day to battle stations?

"That's exactly right," the source replied. He said he didn't know when this would happen, though.

In the meantime, others will run the two Thursday-night programs and a three-hour special which Westin was in charge of before his suspension with pay.

An ABC spokeswoman said Friday that "20/20" senior producer Victor Neufeld now will be the show's acting executive producer of "20/20" and Peter Kunhard, a senior producer of "Our World," will be that show's acting executive producer.

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