On Tuesday night, Bill O'Reilly interviewed former ABC News president David Westin on Fox News and pressed him about ABC having a liberal bias. He drew hilarious answers such as Westin claiming he'd " never heard people in news discussions take liberal points of view."
Westin also appeared with CNN's Piers Morgan that night. While Morgan cited the latest Pew poll numbers that 77 percent of the American people believe the media favor one side, he claimed (and allowed Westin to claim) ABC is "down the middle impartial" and it "takes the center." He didn't ask Westin about being so "impartial" in 2001 that he couldn't say the Pentagon shouldn't be bombed:
MORGAN: As you see the way the debate's gone with the media now, with Fox News very dominant on the right, MSNBC to the left, and so on, ABC still, like most of the main networks, resolutely, I guess down the middle impartial, which is what you from the book have always tried to be. But you see it inevitably moving more perhaps the way of the British print media which I grew up in where everyone basically ends up with a side? Or do you think the networks can still stay strong down the middle?
WESTIN: Well, I don't think it inevitably has to go into more partisanship. And one of the issues that I saw over my tenure there was what constitutes the news media became vastly greater. Of every sort and stripe. And the part that was cable news, when I first started both MSNBC and Fox News were about two months old. If you think about it. And we didn't have a Web site with ABC News. We created it my first year there.
And over time, as I talked about in the book, that really expanded -- so you can find very strong partisan opinion. But I believe today there still is a role and it's being played by some organization like ABC News to try to take the center.
MORGAN: Is it -- is it extensively unhealthy to have partisan cable networks?
WESTIN: I think there's nothing wrong with opinion journalism. There's nothing wrong with advocacy journalism. I mean it's a -- it's a long tradition in this country as well. And we have editorial pages in our newspapers. We have op-ed pages. And that's perfectly healthy. I think the challenge comes when the line gets blurred. When people are not saying yes, I'm giving you my opinion, rather than telling you what I think is the truth.
MORGAN: You mean where news is presented in the opinionated manner?
WESTIN: Exactly right. Because I think we owe it to the audience to tell them when we're telling them because we think it's true, as opposed to when we wanted it to be true, or even worse, when we think that they want it to be true. And that's the danger. But I also think despite the fact that there's roles for opinion journalism, there's also a role for some organizations who are just trying to get it right.
MORGAN: Just report the news.
MORGAN: Without opinion.
WESTIN: Yes, exactly right.
When asked for the highs and lows of his tenure atop ABC News, Westin cited the arrival of 2000 when ABC News broadcast live for 24 hours as the high, and the death of Peter Jennings as a low. Jennings, Westin believes, was always right to suspect Bush was wrong on weapons of mass destruction:
WESTIN: Now my biggest regret is not pursuing weapons of mass destructions more aggressively. I mean we had lots of sources that said that they were there. And everyone believed they were there. Peter Jennings interestingly, actually, was always skeptical. And I wish, in retrospect, we all had listened to Peter a little bit more on that.
MORGAN: Well, I think you would have gone far listening to him on almost everything. He's a great man.
MORGAN: And a brilliant broadcaster.
Peter Jennings was quite intensely "anti-war" on the air, as well, which is why Westin sounds so silly claiming he never heard a liberal POV expressed in the news room. For junkies, see our Special Report "Peter's Peace Platoon."