Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger and his entertainment chief Dana Walden were in Europe on Thursday when Vanity Fair published its sit-down interview with Kim Godwin, the president of ABC News. Walden had approved the interview, which came at the request of the journalist Charlotte Klein, sources familiar with the matter told me, but she likely didn’t anticipate the strange detour it would take.
During her two-year tenure at ABC News, Godwin has successfully managed TV’s highest rated morning show and evening news program, both of which were largely constructed by her predecessors, Ben Sherwood and James Goldston. But, as I’ve reported, her run has also been marred by widespread internal frustrations with her leadership style, especially among network veterans. This came to national attention recently when Godwin’s inaction over the extramarital romance between GMA3 co-hosts T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach metastasized into a months-long tabloid soap opera that damaged the brand, caused a distraction internally, and evidenced a laissez-faire management style that has rubbed many the wrong way.
But the most deeply felt criticisms of Godwin are more evergreen. In brief, many ABC News veterans don’t think she adds much value at the division beyond trying to infuse a cult of positivity, and the credo of work-life balance, into a historically sharp-elbowed, workaholic, win-at-all-costs culture. (She decided to insert “kindness” into the mission statement.) To be sure, there are several ABC News insiders I’ve spoken to who admire Godwin a lot, appreciate the emphasis on collaboration and collegiality, and are grateful to have their weekends back and, in some cases, no longer be crying in the office bathroom. “The culture was a wolf den,” one source said of the previous regimes.
But others fear that the emphasis on work-life balance has come at the expense of competitiveness. Good Morning America and World News Tonight remain at No. 1, but the anti-Godwin crowd argues that she’s simply drafting off the success of her predecessors and the executive producers they put in place. Meanwhile, some suspect that she enjoys the status and perks conferred by her title, and the invitations to events like the Oscars and the Gridiron Dinner, more than the hands-on responsibilities traditionally associated with the job. And that she spends more time managing her personal image than fixating on the business.
In ideal circumstances, these newsroom water-cooler grievances, now passed around in frenetic texts and phone calls, wouldn’t rise to the attention of the C.E.O. of the parentco, especially one who is busy trying to restructure a $175 billion media and entertainment conglomerate while finessing the layoff of 7,000 employees, growing a direct-to-consumer business with reduced content spend, solving the Hulu conundrum, beating back activist investors and preserving the brand’s mass-market appeal while being politically piñata’d by Ron DeSantis. Presumably, one of the responsibilities of every divisional head is to keep their shit off of the boss’s already very full plate. This is where the Vanity Fair story comes in.
For Godwin’s Sake
In the interview with Klein, Godwin came off as defensive and spoke mostly about herself, not the network she ostensibly leads. She claimed that she was more than qualified for her role—“I’m in the job that I’ve earned through 40 years in the business”—but also conceded that, after serving as a number-two at CBS News, the perennial third-place news network, there was “a big learning curve,” and she was still “stretching as an executive.”
Notably, she claimed to be in full control of ABC News, but also claimed ignorance on basic matters, including a decision to conduct an internal leak investigation following my initial report last December about the criticisms of her leadership. Most alarmingly, she professed not to know who she reported to at Disney: “The bottom line is, I really don’t know, right? Our corporation is trying to figure it out, and trying to figure out who reports to who.” It was either obnoxious or naive, or maybe just intentionally provocative. Either way, it raised eyebrows across the industry.
To the casual Vanity Fair reader, Godwin’s stated uncertainty on this last issue may seem innocuous. As the report states, Godwin had protested a recent org chart restructuring that would have had her reporting to the head of television networks, Debra OConnell, rather than directly to Walden—another de facto acknowledgement of the problems on West 66th Street. Did it matter if Godwin had conceded that Burbank might still be ironing out the details? In the eyes of Burbank, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Godwin’s remark gave the impression that Iger and Walden didn’t have their affairs in order, that they couldn’t manage the chaos in their own shop. (For the record, Godwin reports to Walden.)
Godwin dismisses her critics as “Monday morning quarterbacks,” which is not altogether unfair. Schadenfreude runs strong in this industry. Nevertheless, she gave her critics and her colleagues a lot to dissect. At one point in the interview, she implied that her job was far more difficult than that of her predecessors: “It’s not just the old way of, Let me just sit and watch World News Tonight,” she said. “Like, there’s 15 other things that I have to get done.”
The remark, while surely intended to highlight the demands of the network’s still-nascent non-linear efforts, nevertheless managed to offend at least three constituencies. It dismissed the work of the predecessors who were responsible for earning ABC News the preeminent ratings success Godwin now touts as her own; it diminished the importance of the nightly news broadcast, which is one of the most-watched shows on television and, along with GMA, effectively is the business; and it implied, to the consternation of all her critics, that Godwin is busily engaged overseeing shows that are really being run by the executive producers who were in place when she arrived, and are now running their shows as effective fiefdoms. “Everyone is in self-survival mode,” one of the network’s senior managers told me.
The View From Burbank
Alas, grievances have a way of spilling out into the press and, in this case, finding their way into the Disney Rotunda. The GMA3 debacle put a klieg light on the internal criticisms of Godwin and became an embarrassment—or, in Igerian parlance, a “brand withdrawal.” Earlier this year, as Godwin continued to face scrutiny in the press, Iger felt compelled to make a show of support during a dinner with top ABC News talent. “Kim’s success is our success,” he said at the dinner, “and we are invested in her.”
As with David Zaslav’s recent show of support for his own embattled news chief, Chris Licht, there is more than one way to interpret such remarks. When Iger says Disney is invested in Godwin, it implies an unequivocal commitment to her success. At the same time, it’s an open admission that further investment needs to be made. (Zaz’s remarks on Licht weren’t nearly so hard to parse: “He’s gotten a lot wrong. We’ve gotten a lot wrong,” Zaz said. “We’re all flawed.”) Both Godwin and Licht may have felt like they were being embraced, and reasonably so, but they were also arguably being reined in. At any rate, this isn’t the way Iger talks about Kevin Feige, nor Zaz about Casey Bloys.
The view from Burbank, I’m told, is that Godwin is floundering but cannot be left to fail. The operating thesis is that she needs more support on all sides, and especially on the communications front. Indeed, two sources with knowledge of the matter told me that ABC News is now looking for a senior vice president of communications to oversee her current P.R. team. Whether additional support will be enough to reverse the ill will she has engendered among newsroom veterans, fairly or unfairly, remains to be seen. When asked by Klein if she felt she had the right people around her to succeed, Godwin said, “it’s evolving,” and added: “Change is hard, but I only ask for collaboration.”
Interestingly, many of Godwin’s critics latched on to the fact that she referred to herself as a trailblazer, and said “trailblazing is hard,” which struck them as the height of delusional self-aggrandizement. Upon closer inspection, she was referring to the fact that she is, as she put it, “the first woman, the first person of color, the first outsider” to run the news division—and, in this regard, she has undoubtedly earned the moniker. Godwin’s ascent is a powerful, and far overdue, breakthrough.
The obvious challenges of sexism and racism in corporate culture aside, no one should discount the significance of her outsiderdom. Since the Roone Arledge days, ABC News has prided itself on being unapologetically hypercompetitive, even if it left staffers feeling jostled. (Iger did his own tour of duty under Arledge, at ABC Sports.) One former ABC News producer recounted how, before GMA overtook NBC’s Today show, Sherwood walked into the office one day with a trophy and declared, “We are going to win the championship”—a mantra he seems to have repeated throughout his tenure atop the news division, even after he’d delivered on that promise.
A Godwin anecdote is equally telling. One staffer described how, under past regimes, a booker who lost a big guest to a rival network might be raked over the coals. When that happens under Godwin’s watch, the staffer said, she offers comfort: “It’s OK, we’ll get ‘em next time.” It’s easy to understand why many people would prefer to work at Godwin’s ABC. It’s also easy to sympathize with the veterans who understand that, in television, the difference between failure and success hinges on a leader who refuses to lose.
Alas, an annoying press story aside, Iger knows what Zaslav does: linear television is fading, and its decline needs to be managed as profitably as possible. Presumably he’s looking for a leader to handle those levers—and hopefully with as few self-inflicted headaches as possible. After all, the job is hard enough as it is.