Kim Godwin Walks Tricky Terrain in Early Tenure at ABC News

When she worked at CBS News as a senior executive, Kim Godwin was known to be eager to gain more control of a large news operation. Now that she’s arrived as president of ABC News, she has it — and a lot more.

From the day she took the top role at the Walt Disney-backed news division, Godwin has been navigating tricky terrain. The top producer slot at the pillar of the organization, “Good Morning America,” came open abruptly before she started, the result of a surprise parting between the show’s former senior executive producer, Michael Corn, and ABC News. Godwin also had to find a way to tone down an increasing amount of on-screen rancor at “The View,” where co-host Meghan McCain seemed to be sparring on air with greater frequency. Earlier this summer, the executive producer of “Nightline,” Steve Baker, stepped away from the show, according to three people familiar with the matter, and no successor has been named.

Godwin had expected to push ABC News’ burgeoning streaming business and enjoy some of the things ABC could offer that CBS News could not, such as the nation’s most-watched evening and morning news programs, “World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America.” But a lawsuit filed last week alleging that Corn sexually assaulted two different ABC News staffers during his tenure and that ABC knew about the claims for some time has set off a different sort of news cycle of which the new president may not be in full control.

ABC News declined to make Godwin available for comment, and in a previous statement said that it “disputes the claims made against it and will address this matter in court.” Corn, who now works for Nexstar Media’s NewsNation cable network, has denied the claims made against him.

The industry has in the past few years been captivated and alarmed in equal measure by stories of sordid behind-the-scenes behavior at CBS News, NBC News and Fox News Channel. Now ABC News, which managed to keep out of that harsh spotlight, is finding it cannot avoid it.

The unit has long had a reputation as a tough place to work, a place where top anchors sometimes clash when the camera is not on. A recent decision to award “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir the bulk of duties related to special reports and breaking news meant taking some of them away from George Stephanopoulos, who previously handled them. And the news division in July of last year parted ways with Barbara Fedida, a senior vice president for talent and business operations, after investigating allegations of what Disney called “crass and inappropriate language.”

There have been some expectations that Godwin would try to change the place. One person familiar with her tenure at ABC says Godwin is eager tackle problems as they surface, rather than putting things aside and allowing them to fester.

On Sunday, she named ABC News veteran Simone Swink to take the reins at “GMA.” Godwin earlier this year took pains to stress to the hosts at “The View” that they needed be more civil on air, according to a person familiar with the matter. McCain left the program in August after four years at the show’s “Hot Topics” table (which has been virtual on many recent broadcasts due to coronavirus conditions).  Godwin recently hired Jose Andino, a former senior vice president of human resources at CBS News who she has worked with for years. He is seen functioning as a sort of lieutenant to Godwin in broader areas. His work, Godwin told staffers earlier this month, “will be the implementation of key initiatives and goals involving cultural change and business management.”

Yet Godwin is also maneuvering in a new environment. While she has held senior roles at CBS News and at major-market TV stations like New York’s WCBS and supervised news operations for NBC’s local stations for a stint, her current job is her first atop a major division of a top U.S. media conglomerate. The job brings with it a higher degree of scrutiny — some of it from her new Disney bosses.

During a meeting with ABC News staffers last week to discuss the allegations against Corn, Godwin suggested an independent investigation of the claims in the suit, according to people familiar with the matter, confirming details previously reported by The Wall Street Journal. But that did not sit well with others at the corporation, according to some of these people. The Journal reported Monday that Disney held unsuccessful mediation talks with two women who had made allegations in the lawsuit against Corn.

ABC News has other business at hand. The unit has made earlier strides in the streaming area than some of its rivals, tapping some of its streaming personnel to handle broadcast duties. Linsey Davis, who anchors a weeknight streaming program, also anchors “World News Tonight” on Sundays. And “GMA3,” an early-afternoon extension of “Good Morning America,” is produced by a team assigned on streaming content. The news division has also worked on a spate of documentary specials for Hulu.

In the news business, one thing is inevitable. At some point, an operation populated by journalists will generate its own headlines, in addition to delivering those that are part of the news cycle. Godwin’s task over the next few weeks will be to tamp down the former without being distracted from the latter.

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