'Mr. Quality' made big calls on news coverage

After 20 years as ABC's 'ethics czar,' Richard Wald talks about killinga Disney story and saying no to Dr. Kevorkian.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's been a bumpy five years for Richard Wald, whose seemingly impossible job was to stop journalistic controversies before they happened.

Mr. Wald resigned last month as ABC's senior vice president of editorial quality, better known as the network's "ethics czar." He likened his exit to an amicable change in government. "Roone Arledge and I helped build this place, but now a new group of people has taken over," he says, alluding to ABC's owner, the Walt Disney Co., and ABC News President David Westin. "They deserve a free hand in picking who they work with," Wald says.

The new keeper of ABC's ethical flame is executive vice president Shelby Coffey III, the former editor of The Los Angeles Times, who joined the network last June.

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Wald's departure culminates a 20-year career at ABC News, where he's best known for lifting the network's evening newscast from third place to first place in the ratings, and strengthening the credibility of ABC News.

In the television news industry, "Dick Wald is known as Mr. Quality," says Everette Dennis, professor of communication and media management at New York's Fordham University. "He's a widely admired standard-setter for the broadcast industry."

Wald went to ABC after losing his job as president of NBC News in a clash with NBC president Herbert Schlosser in 1977. Roone Arledge, then president of ABC News and Wald's former classmate at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, hired Wald to beef up the network's underperforming news division.

His job: nix flawed stories

"Back then we needed credibility, and we needed stature at ABC News, and that's what Dick brought," says Mr. Arledge, now chairman of ABC News.

Wald also brought in talented reporters, including David Brinkley, whom he had worked with at NBC. Wald talked Mr. Brinkley into leaving that network to launch a new ABC program called "This Week" with David Brinkley, which debuted in 1981.

Having earned respect for ABC News in the 1980s, Wald turned to protecting the news division's elevated reputation in the 1990s. Amid the growing din of all-news channels and multiplying network newsmagazines, Arledge asked Wald to take over as ABC's ethics czar.

The job was to head off journalistically flawed stories before they had a chance to air. Wald reviewed hours of news division programs in advance, sometimes vetting segments just minutes before they were broadcast.

Yet his biggest accomplishments may lie not in the good stories that boosted ratings, but in bad ones viewers never saw. "In my position," Wald jokes, "you get all of the blame when things go wrong and none of the praise when things go right."

His decisions, he says, were made with complete autonomy. Since Wald reported only to Arledge, producers and correspondents took his judgments seriously, Arledge says.

Not once in his five years as head of news ethics was Wald overruled. "We have some heavyweight anchors here at ABC," Arledge says. "If you're going to tell Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, or Ted Koppel you're not going to air a piece they've worked on, you need all the strength you can muster. That's why I wanted his job to be independent."

With low-key aplomb and patrician diplomacy, Wald was a major player in both netting and nixing controversial interviews. Last year, Jack Kevorkian approached "20/20" anchor Barbara Walters with a pitch for an interview accompanied by the controversial videotape of Dr. Kevorkian helping one of his Michigan patients die. Wald advised against ABC working with Kevorkian. The tape later appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes."

Despite playing behind-the-scenes roles like reviewing scripts and moderating in-house ethics seminars, Wald himself has been the subject of controversy.

Conflict of interest?

Last year, for example, after a written assurance from Wald that in "no instance" would the network avoid reporting on its parent company, Disney, ABC killed a story about pedophiles at theme parks owned by Disney.

The decision to scotch the report drew condemnation from media critics, who charged that ABC put the interests of its corporate parent ahead of its own journalistic values.

Just days before ABC News president David Westin made the decision, Disney chairman Michael Eisner said in an interview on National Public Radio that he would prefer ABC News correspondents not to report on Disney.

"The way you avoid conflict of interest is to, as best you can, not cover yourself," Mr. Eisner said.

"I have great sympathy for that point of view," Wald replies. "But of course, you can't exempt a major American corporation from network news coverage." Yet in the end, Wald advised against running the story. Wald will only say, "I didn't think that the script as we had it was ready to put on the air."

Early last year Wald was involved in debates at ABC over how to describe some of the more intimate details of the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Did the networks go too far? "Perhaps," Wald says. "But a little bit of raucousness can be a valuable thing.

"If ordinary reporting moves entirely toward the respectable side of the ledger, there's a huge amount of activity, from simple graft to personal corruption, that won't get reported," he says.

Wald will serve as a consultant to ABC News this year and hold ethics seminars at the network.After that, who knows, says Wald, adding, "I'm looking for a new career."

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