Television

Charlie Gibson leaves the ABC anchor desk , taking a rare tone of civility with him

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

When future historians write about the Age of the TV Anchor, Charlie Gibson will probably merit little more than a footnote, a fleeting mention that he was the fellow who kept the seat warm between the reigns of King Jennings and Queen Sawyer.

Gibson deserves better.

It's true that Gibson, 66, who signs off Friday from his hosting duties at "World News Tonight," didn't revolutionize the job the way Walter Cronkite did. In fact, his very reluctance to mess with the tried-and-true formula — read news, ask tough questions, turn the page, say goodnight — is what made him so extraordinary. He didn't host "Saturday Night Live," he didn't grace the cover of People magazine. He even turned down our interview request, because, his publicist said, he "really doesn't like talking about himself." At a time when TV journalists are trying to stand out, Gibson stood back — without backing down.

My biggest fear is that his replacement, Diane Sawyer, will be so eager to make her mark that she'll have hubby Mike Nichols redesign the set to look like the nightclub in "The Birdcage" and play so intensely on viewers' emotions that the broadcast will be sponsored by Kleenex.

Some people like theatrics in their journalism. A lot don't. ABC's disastrous pairing of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, a transparent attempt to be the "cool network," almost sank the program. It was only when longtime "Good Morning America" host Gibson took over in 2006 that "World News" crawled back into a competitive race for No. 1 with NBC.

It was Gibson who set the tone, rightly or wrongly, for how the press would treat Sarah Palin when she butchered his inquiry about the "Bush Doctrine" in a multi-part interview. It was Gibson who was the go-to moderator for presidential debates in 2008.

Not that he was perfect. With help from George Stephanopoulos, Gibson turned the April 2008 showdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama into an ugly attempt at "gotcha" journalism that came across like a sloppy episode of "TMZ." His pairing with Sawyer on election night seemed like the world's most awkward blind date, even though the two had spent years together hosting "GMA."

But despite those slips, Gibson should be best remembered for his soothing, simple aura of command. If he had an ego, he did a masterful job of hiding it. He's the only anchor who could do the nightly news in a sweater and blue jeans — and no one would blink. That easygoing style probably won't serve Gibson well if he decides to continue in television. TV journalism has gotten too loud, too desperate for subtlety. Most likely, he'll slip out of the spotlight and out of our memories in a matter of months.

And that's a shame.

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