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Though DISNEY President Bob Iger tells an upcoming edition of VANITY FAIR that he "should have been a bit more aggressive" in his defense of ABC's NIGHTLINE, he readily attacks Barbara Walters for how she defended the high-toned news program on ABC's THE VIEW.

VF ace reporter David Margolick explores behind-the-scenes action of ABC's efforts to woo David Letterman.

After Walters complained to VIEW viewers that DISNEY had treated her and Ted Koppel shabbily by surprising them with programming changes, Iger criticized her choice of soapboxes: "Go on any street corner and say what you like, even if it's about the company you work for... write an op-ed in the NEW YORK TIMES, appear on LARRY KING if you want. But to use one of our own programs to do that?"


"Barbara and Sam [Donaldson] could not have been more supportive," Koppel tells Margolick, "perhaps even to their own detriment." Koppel also says that Diane Sawyer was among those who supported him, in private.

The David Letterman bid, a clandestine project which Iger code-named "Project Gap-Tooth," drew blood in all quarters. Koppel called his anonymous critics at ABC "attack weasels" after an unnamed executive told The NEW YORK TIMES that "the relevancy of NIGHTLINE just is not there anymore."

It was an "unfortunate choice of words," ABC senior vice president for communications Zenia Mucha tells Margolick.

Though she denies having uttered them, Margolick reports that "most fingers point to Zenia Mucha."

An ABC newsman tells Margolick that anonymous sources cannot hide their gender in the NEW YORK TIMES, where "men are called 'he,' women are called 'executives.'"

As further evidence of her guilt, some observers pointed to the statement's peculiar syntax, and noted that Mucha had been born in Poland. When two executives asked Mucha point-blank if she'd committed the faux pas, she did not deny that she had, according to an ABC News source. Mucha, however, denies that any such confrontation took place.

Whoever dismissed NIGHTLINE's relevancy, Margolick writes, was saying something that one of his or her higher-ups "apparently eager to assuage Letterman's conscience over being the one who killed NIGHTLINE" had wanted said.

Margolick reports that although there was enormous resentment toward what some in ABC called "the Principality of NIGHTLINE," many ABC correspondents consider NIGHTLINE a haven. "There wasn't a person in the building who preferred working on WORLD NEWS TONIGHT to NIGHTLINE," says one ABC NEWS alumnus. "Peter [Jennings] is impossible, and Ted is embracing."

The June issue of VANITY FAIR hits newstands in New York on May 8 and nationally on May 14.


But Koppel and his staff operate within an elite enclave at ABC. ABC NEWS president David Westin admits to having "let NIGHTLINE get away with everything for years." One executive tells Margolick, "No one tells them what to do. They get dismissed by his Tedness."

ABC staffers felt NIGHTLINE was spared DISNEY's budgetary knife and resented its ergonomic chairs, wooden floors, and Koppel's three-day workweek.

One veteran NIGHTLINE staff member concedes the ill will:

"It's a combination of envy that we continue to hold standards and the belief that NIGHTLINE people think their shit smells better. NIGHTLINE people are called 'radical fundamentalists,' or 'the Cult,' or just 'those assholes in Washington."


When the story of NIGHTLINE;s possible demise broke in the NEW YORK TIMES, Iger was forced to tell News President David Westin about "Project Gap-Tooth." Westin and Koppel had been left out of the loop, Iger says, because if they had known of the Letterman bid they would have felt bound to tell their colleagues.

Telling Westin would have been less problematic for Iger than telling Koppel. Westin, a refugee from corporate law, had nowhere else to go. "They treat him very, very badly," said one veteran ABC newsman of Westin, "but it's not a job people walk away from. You can take a lot of shit at these prices."


But Iger respected Koppel, even held him in awe, according to one ABC colleague. It was the awe "of an Ithaca College graduate for someone like Koppel," the colleague says, "who thought he was secretary of state." When Iger called Koppel at his vacation home on Captiva Island, Florida, to tell him about the Letterman bid, he was told that Koppel was out. When he called again he was told the anchor did not want to talk to him and had gone to bed. Iger tried to reach Koppel two more times the next day.

On that second day of trying to reach Koppel, a daily E-mail bulletin to NIGHTLINE viewers read, "Ted has returned from what was to have been a long weekend, but to this point, no executive from ABC or DISNEY has spoken to him."


Iger tells Margolick that the bulletin "really pissed me off." He points out that "it completely ignored the fact that someone from the WALT DISNEY COMPANY "namely the president, me" had tried to reach Ted from the night before.

After Letterman declined the ABC overture, Koppel demanded "a clear and unmistakable signal" of DISNEY's backing. Westin had urged Koppel not to make the statement, or at least to tone it down, and DISNEY did not respond for more than three weeks.

Then an announcement came, in Iger's name, saying that NIGHTLINE would continue "for years to come." Unmentioned was a private memorandum which evidently said that those "years" numbered around two.


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