Charles Gibson, the chief anchor of ABC's flagship newscast World News, has announced he will step down at the end of the year. Gibson, now 66, will be replaced by a familiar figure — Diane Sawyer, his 63-year-old former co-host on Good Morning America.
"I think the thing that Charlie felt — and I couldn't argue with him — is that he had accomplished what he set out to accomplish," said ABC News President David Westin.
In three short years as anchor, Gibson stabilized a program that had gone through tragedy and tumult. The death of longtime anchor Peter Jennings was followed by the ill-fated pairing of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. When Woodruff was severely wounded by an attack in Iraq, Westin turned to Gibson. A former congressional correspondent, Gibson had also been able to focus coverage on politics during a historic presidential campaign.
Gibson wrote of his decision in an e-mail to colleagues released by the network. "It has not been an easy decision to make. This has been my professional home for almost 35 years," he wrote. "And I love this news department, and all who work in it, to the depths of my soul."
Gibson stabilized World News and brought it to a ratings lead. It's now a strong second place to the NBC Nightly News, averaging about 7 million to 8 million viewers a night. The move was Gibson's second rescue job for ABC News. He had done a long stint as co-host of Good Morning America with Joan Lunden, but returned in 1999 with Diane Sawyer to help revive the show's fortunes. It restored the show to its place as a moneymaking machine for the network's news division.
Gibson has been an avuncular presence who was unafraid of mixing it up, as in his interview last year with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, when he stopped a rambling response cold this way: "I got lost in a blizzard of words there — is that a yes?" Similarly, he drew jeers from Democratic partisans for his line of questioning during a primary debate involving then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Now his former Good Morning America colleague Sawyer will follow his path. Westin said Sawyer could have lobbied credibly for the World News job three years ago but supported Gibson instead.
"She has more than paid her dues, and it is her time," Westin said.
Sawyer got her start in Washington as a young press aide in the Nixon White House, then joined CBS's Washington bureau, where she covered the State Department and was later a correspondent for 60 Minutes. She jumped to ABC to host Prime Time Live and later Good Morning America, where she interviewed world leaders and performed such stunts as standing on her head for a young Elian Gonzalez. She'll take over World News in January.
While a spokeswoman said Sawyer and Gibson were not giving interviews, Sawyer released a statement praising her former partner. "There is no one like Charlie Gibson and it is an enormous honor to be asked to join the terrific broadcast he and the great team of journalists have built at World News," she said. "Until then, I'll be getting up early."
For the first time, two of the three solo anchors on the prestigious network evening newscasts will be women. Westin said the network would take the intervening months to settle on her replacement for the morning show.