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Here's the Real News Story: Arledge Surprised Us All

Commentary: The president of ABC News is stepping down, but he leaves behind a strong and far-reaching legacy.

June 12, 1998|TOM SHALES | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Some people laughed when Roone Arledge, Mr. TV Sports, took over as president of ABC News. Some jeered. A few of us critics saw it as another sign of decline and fall. Well, we were wrong.

Now Arledge, 66, has officially retired as chief executive of ABC News and we can see his legacy is an awesome one, and that how ever he started out, he became a giant.

Rumors of Arledge's departure (though he'll stay at ABC with an honorary title or two) have been rampant for a year, and there have been tales from inside ABC of Arledge being very reluctant to surrender the throne to young David Westin, who now has his job.

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It's ironic that when Arledge took over the news division in 1977, he was considered by many to be an upstart given to gimmickry and razzle-dazzle, not qualities one wants in a journalist. Now, at the end of his reign, he's thought of in some network circles as somewhat old-fashioned and conservative, a man who stubbornly adheres to the notion that content may indeed be as important as style.

Arledge can be blamed for the star system in network news, which he encouraged by luring big names away from other networks with big salaries. But television is a personality medium, whether one likes that or not, and the star system in news was as inevitable as it was in entertainment. People like to get the news from people they like.

I remember getting Arledge's goat plenty of times in the early days by making fun of some of the jazzy touches he brought to news--hyperkinetic graphics and show-bizzy glitz--and referring to such tactics as "Rooney Tunes." He was not among my most admired people and I was certainly not among his. Some of the criticisms were justified.

Arledge has almost admitted as much. The premiere of the ABC News magazine "20/20" was a fiasco, a vacuous mishmash of featurettes and junk news and even a Claymation cartoon. The program was yanked off the air, its two snide co-hosts fired, and Arledge completely revamped it by the time it aired a second time, one week later. Now it is an absolute mainstay.

Of course we never knew how much input Arledge had on that premiere, how much of it looked good to him in rehearsal. He said later, not self-effacingly, that if he'd been more involved from the beginning, the show would have debuted without all the pie on its face. Regardless, it and Arledge prevailed and Barbara Walters, one of the stars Arledge acquired over the years, keeps it humming.

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The greatest single Arledge triumph? "Nightline," which began as a series of nightly reports called "America Held Hostage," when Americans were indeed being held hostage in Iran. A young man with funny hair was the anchor; Ted Koppel has since become one of our most trusted, respected and celebrated TV journalists.

And by staking out the late-night hour with "America Held Hostage," Arledge was able to hold onto it for the news division when the hostage crisis ended. It became "Nightline," one of the milestone and touchstone programs in the history of broadcast journalism (like CBS' "See It Now" and "60 Minutes," and NBC's "Meet the Press").

Another bold stroke by Arledge brought David Brinkley, as distinguished a newsman as there was at the time, over from NBC to ABC so he could host the landmark Sunday morning public affairs show "This Week With David Brinkley." Alas, with Brinkley's retirement, the show is wobbling. It lacks the clout and weight--and wit--that the great Brinkley brought to it.

Still, it goes in Arledge's victory column, a positive contribution to the medium and its audience. Arledge's influence, mostly for good, will be felt for years and maybe decades to come. We underestimated him at the beginning and who knows--maybe he even underestimated himself.

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