January 31, 2006

ABC Mulls Next Step for Evening Newscast

By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK -- As "World News Tonight" co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt recover from injuries suffered in an Iraqi roadside bomb blast, ABC News struggled with caring for the two men and their families while trying to decide the next step for the newly relaunched broadcast.

Woodruff and Vogt might be flown to a U.S. hospital as soon as Tuesday. Woodruff's injuries are more serious. He responded to stimuli in his hands and feet but only briefly opened his eyes. Vogt was awake, alert and speaking at the hospital. Woodruff's brother, David, told ABC News that they were optimistic.

"We want to see him recover and return to what he loves to do," David Woodruff said. "Maybe not back to Iraq, but certainly I think he'll want to get back to what he's always wanted to do."

In a poignant report on Monday's "World News Tonight," ABC News said that after the attack Woodruff asked his producer, Vinnie Malhotra: "Am I alive?"

Their injuries sent a shock through ABC News and "World News Tonight," which had only recently turned the page after the death of Peter Jennings. ABC had anointed Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas as the "anchors of the future." It also launched an ambitious plan to remake the news, setting in motion plans for at least one anchor to be traveling most of the time, broadcasting the first regular live newscasts to the West Coast and a daily 3 p.m. ET webcast.

But with Woodruff facing months of convalescence under the most optimistic hopes, ABC News is faced with a familiar question about "World News Tonight." ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said ABC News is in the process of making decisions for the immediate future.

"We are anxiously awaiting Bob Woodruff coming back to work as soon as he is able. That is our working assumption, that he will be back and he will be back as anchor of 'World News Tonight,"' Schneider said.

He declined to speculate about any interim plans ABC News had other than to say that Vargas would, as scheduled, anchor "World News Tonight" from Washington. Monday's broadcast retained Vargas and Woodruff's name on it. Schneider also said that the network would continue carrying out its plans for the show, including the three mostly live broadcasts and the daily webcasts. ABC News correspondent Dan Harris anchored Monday afternoon's webcast.

"ABC News is committed to doing the 'World News Tonight' broadcast as we have set out to do, but 24 hours after the tragedy we're still working on exactly how that will play out, and we're not ready to make any sort of announcements about it," he said. Sources said it might be the end of the week or later before ABC News publicly addresses the question.

Network-news analyst Andrew Tyndall said that ABC News was going to tread very carefully for at least six months until the situation becomes clearer.

"For the time being, they can't do anything other than to act as if he was on sick leave," Tyndall said. He said that ABC News might have to keep Vargas more often behind the New York anchor desk.

"It would be in bad taste to make any sort of radical decisions for quite some period of time, and I wouldn't predict they would do that," said Jill Olmsted, an associate professor of journalism at American University in Washington.

Another American University communications professor, former "NBC Nightly News" staffer Gemma Puglisi, said the Iraq war is different and much more dangerous than other news events in recent memory. She said Sunday's attack on Woodruff and Vogt underscores the danger.

"No one is safe, there are no perimeters, and of course when you cover these stories your life is on the line," Puglisi said. "They should still cover it, but how are they going to with all the challenges? Will this be a turning point, will they continue to send the anchors to Iraq? ... It's going to continue to be a challenge."

In an interview Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America," ABC News president David Westin said the network would continue to cover Iraq and that Woodruff and Vogt knew the risks and wanted to go anyway.

"What choice do we have (to cover Iraq)? As long as the U.S. is over there and our men and women are over there and they're in harm's way, this is a story we have to cover every single day," Westin said.

"CBS Evening News" executive producer Rome Hartman said that it was a sad day in journalism, with the attack on the ABC News crew as well as a new video of kidnapped Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll. He said that Iraq is more important than ever.

"We need to cover this story, and we will continue to cover this story, and we will continue to work as hard as we can to keep our people safe," Hartman said. "We're not bailing out of Iraq. We can't. Nobody can."

The nation owes the men and women who volunteer to cover the situation in Iraq and the military men and women who are serving in Iraq a debt of gratitude, the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins said.

"The work that these journalists are doing is nothing short of heroic, and they're not doing it to be heroes," Tompkins said. "It's the core of what we do (as journalists), and we need them there, and we need them there more than they need to be there," Tompkins said.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter