When Bob Iger talks about managing the Walt Disney brand, he speaks in a financial argot of deposits and withdrawals—a worldview he borrowed from his late friend, Steve Jobs. A smart strategic acquisition, a highly rated show, a good bit of press: these are “brand deposits.” A box office flop, a misguided marketing campaign, a public controversy: these are “brand withdrawals.” It is fair to assume that when the recently re-installed C.E.O. of Disney saw the front page of the New York Post, last Thursday, broadcasting an extramarital affair between two ABC News anchors under the headline “Good Moaning America,” a withdrawal had been made.
Iger has Herculean challenges before him: increasing profits and raising a beleaguered stock, growing Disney+ and deciding what to do with Hulu, managing the inexorable decline of linear and determining the fate of ESPN, keeping Marvel and Star Wars fans happy, correcting theme park prices, and identifying a capable successor who he won’t have to come back and replace yet again. In the grand scheme of things, a scandal involving two minor ABC morning show personalities—Amy Robach and T.J. Holmes, the co-hosts of GMA3, as the third hour of Good Morning America is known—is about as low on his list of priorities as you can get. As one media executive put it, speaking in the art of anatomical metaphor, GMA3 is a cuticle on the finger of GMA, which is but a hand of ABC News, itself the arm of Disney Television on the corporate corpus of The Walt Disney Company. In other words: not quite as serious of a threat as Dan Loeb jumping from the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
But a withdrawal is a withdrawal, and what is likely most concerning to Iger is the way in which this scandal was handled. How did an innocuous, totally consensual affair between two B-level (if even) talents blow up into a multi-week national tabloid story, dragging the GMA brand through the mud in the process? And what does that say about the management at ABC News, a lucrative, if declining, business that is home to both the nation’s most-watched morning show and most-watched nightly news broadcast—and, importantly, a business that is near and dear to Iger’s heart, given his upbringing at Capital Cities/ABC? Iger has occasionally described ABC News, perhaps with some knowing hyperbole, as the jewel in the crown of the Walt Disney Company.
While Iger and his fellow Disney executives have tried to keep themselves at a remove from the tabloid scandal embroiling ABC News, they have also been literally on top of it. Iger and his team were in New York last week for an annual board meeting, which took place on the top floor of ABC Studios at 77 West 66th Street, in the old Cap Cities boardroom. Iger stayed in New York this week to speak, along with President Obama, at an event commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Knowing his leadership style, and his affinity for the news division, Iger has almost certainly used his time in New York to pay a visit to the newsroom and engage, and perhaps even dine with, top talent—David Muir, Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, Robin Roberts, Michael Strahan, etcetera. Conversations likely turned to the scandal and, one suspects, the person responsible for overseeing the crisis: ABC News President Kim Godwin, a talented and mostly well-liked TV news executive who, after a hellish year in the industry, is now enduring her time in the barrel.
For the Love of Godwin
When Godwin was hired to run ABC News in April 2021, from CBS News, her appointment immediately perturbed a number of veteran insiders. Disney’s news network has long been home to a highly ambitious, cutthroat culture formed under the legendary broadcasting executive Roone Arledge, an early Iger mentor. In 2012, under the leadership of Ben Sherwood, Good Morning America broke the Today show’s 17-year winning streak and became America’s top-rated morning show, a once-inconceivable feat that led to immense shame and soul-searching at NBC (not to mention the defenestration of Ann Curry). A few years later, under James Goldston, World News Tonight overtook NBC Nightly News. The methods for success weren’t always savory—ABC News executives and their P.R. chiefs were masters in the dark arts of the ratings and reputation wars—but employees prided themselves on the fact that they were playing to win. Meanwhile, CBS News had long been a distant third place in the ratings, even since the Rather era, and Godwin was its second ranking executive. The idea that the number two person at the number three network was being put in charge of ABC News frightened talent and staff. It was like asking the bench coach of the Blue Jays to manage the Yankees.
Godwin was brought in with a specific mandate to repair the ABC News culture, which had recently gained a reputation for being divisive, inequitable, and exhausting. This was inarguably necessary, but some veterans worried that prioritizing culture, that catchall centerpiece of the corporate pablum lexicon, might come at the expense of competitiveness. In her first months, Godwin stressed the importance of mental health and taking breaks, and led by example. Godwin took vacations and posted photos on Instagram. She frequently traveled to Atlanta on weekends to be with her husband, who is a high school principal in the area. In the early months, she could occasionally be hard to get a hold of. Multiple ABC News sources said that on one weekend last summer, as ABC News was trying to determine whether to keep reporters and production crews on the ground in Afghanistan during the chaotic U.S. troop withdrawal, Godwin could not be reached. The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright, who has chronicled some of these internal frustrations with Godwin’s style, notes that some staffers call her “The Banker,” owing “to the casual hours she keeps and her alleged unavailability when major news breaks.” (An ABC News spokesperson declined to comment for this piece.)
Other Godwinisms have irked some of her employees. For instance, up until recently she regularly conducted the morning meeting over Zoom from her office, rather than joining her colleagues in the conference room—even though the conference room is directly adjacent to her office. She also requires meeting attendees to sing “Happy Birthday” on staff birthdays, which is almost daily at an organization of ABC’s size, and occasionally calls people out if they’re not singing. (This seems pretty harmless, but you can imagine the cynical newsroom eye rolling at this sort of kumbaya gesture.) On her own birthday, she asked the staff to sing the Stevie Wonder version.
Some sources have also chafed at her efforts to turn ABC News into a cheerleading organization for her alma mater, Florida A&M University. ABC News has produced multiple segments on F.A.M.U, including a multi-day GMA broadcast from the campus during its homecoming. Godwin has also gifted F.A.M.U. shirts to staff and asked employees to send photos of themselves wearing the Rattler orange and green. Presumably Godwin aspires to sit on the university’s board of trustees one day.
The fact that ABC News remains the dominant ratings leader in broadcast journalism might render all of these internal frustrations with Godwin’s leadership irrelevant. The network is still winning under her watch, after all, and has grown its lead in some areas. Water-cooler whining is also standard practice in the news business, and many organizations are perhaps overpopulated with veteran staff who are longing for the old status quo, that Aaron Sorkin-ized nostalgic fantasy. But the mishandling of public controversies, such as GMA3, can make larger questions of leadership very relevant to the higher powers, and fast.
Media executives who sit atop organizations like Disney and Comcast and Warner Bros. Discovery enjoy the bragging rights that come from owning influential national news organizations—the awards, the ratings wins, the relationships with talent, etcetera—but they have extremely little patience for all of the headaches this entails, such as the stories that antagonize politicians and advertisers, the on-air fuck-ups that drive headlines, the anchor rivalries and internal dramas and, certainly, anything that threatens to tarnish the brand. Godwin may have been somewhat protected from those pressures when Disney was run by Bob Chapek, a theme parks executive with no news experience, and little interest in ABC. It will be much harder to fly under the radar of an executive who grew up in the ABC studio and made his mark as an executive under Arledge’s tutelage.
The “Internal and External” Distraction
Several Disney and ABC News insiders, veteran media executives and crisis communications professionals I spoke to this week noted a number of unforced errors in Godwin’s handling of the GMA3 debacle. There’s some Monday morning quarterbacking going on here, to be sure. Nevertheless, the overwhelming consensus is that Godwin should have pulled Robach and Holmes off the air last Thursday, the first day after the news of their affair broke. It didn’t need to be punitive; they could have issued statements saying they needed time to take care of personal matters. It would have deflated the story and moved the controversy in-house.
Meanwhile, she could have also enlisted Tanya Menton, the Disney lawyer who oversees sensitive talent matters, to conduct an investigation into the matter. Instead, Godwin allowed the hosts to remain on the air based on her conclusion that a relationship between two consenting adults did not violate company policy. That’s a naive or gutsy decision, depending on who you talk to, but one that also risks a mini-scandal erupting into a multi-day (or week) story, which creates hassles for everyone else, and the network.
Godwin also left the matter of how the issue would be addressed up to the talent. Robach and Holmes were provided with various statements they might have read on the show; instead, they opted not to say anything. Then, on Friday, the hosts decided to make light of the matter on the show, a Door No. 3 option that no seasoned communications professional would have ever sanctioned: “It’s too bad it’s Friday,” Holmes said. “Is it?” Robach said. “It’s been a great week,” Holmes replied, smiling. “I just want it to keep going, and going, and going. Just enjoy it.” “Speak for yourself,” Robach said laughing. That night, the New York Post revealed that Holmes had also had an alleged affair with a married GMA producer. (This week, the Post published another report of Holmes’ alleged affair with yet another ABC News staffer.) No one is saying that on-air talent are simply bushy-tailed, attractive people who can only read from cue cards. But, well, they shouldn’t be in charge of their own crisis P.R.
Finally, on Monday morning, Godwin informed Robach and Holmes that they would be temporarily benched from GMA3—a late-in-the-game move that breathed new life into the drama, created another round of national media attention, and questioned Godwin’s judgment and leadership: the ultimate withdrawal in the parlance of Disney. On the morning call, Godwin told staff that the attention surrounding the affair had become an “internal and external distraction,” and implored staff to “stop whispering about it in the hallways.”
Robach and Holmes did not explicitly violate company policy, to be sure. Nevertheless, a more seasoned media executive might have seen the “internal and external distraction” coming from a mile away, and understood that it was arguably their obligation as a leader to take more decisive action, plug the scandal, do a little internal digging, and hit reset. Every ABC News employee signs a contract stipulating that they will “act at all times with due regard to public morals and conventions,” and acknowledges that they can be terminated for behavior that brings the company “into public disrepute… scandal or ridicule… or which reflects unfavorably upon us.” With the tabloids on the scent, and the industry in the media crosshairs, one might at least conclude that it’s worth getting the anchors off air long enough to determine the extent of the scandal. The good news for Godwin, of course, is that she isn’t the only news leader who is presumably imagining that 2023—with that end of year fortnight, when everyone is away, and not returning calls—can’t possibly come soon enough.
This article has been updated.