DOUBLE, DOUBLE, TOIL AND TROUBLE: FEEL FREE TO TELL US MORE ABOUT LADY MACBETH
Today’s NYT Style section has a strange profile of Ben Sherwood that addresses more of what people think of him than how he’s going to move ABC News into the future. In the profile, the new president of the news division is said to sit in his office, “at times absently rubbing his hands together as if washing them with soap and water.”
Cue the thunder and lightning, because buried amongst his chosen defenders, the NYT reporter has stumbled on a Shakespearean clue of the tragedy of blind ambition at ABC News.
Ben Sherwood, more than most, has tried his best to write, control and sell his own life narrative to others. So far, he’s been very successful, convincing key consumers, most recently Anne Sweeney, of his greatness and perceived destiny. That’s all fine with me, except when Ben Sherwood’s narrative — the story of “his path,” — infringes upon the true and provable facts of my own.
To draw once more from the wisdom within the pages of Shakespeare’s Macbeth invoked by the NYT reporter: “What need we fear who knows (the truth) when none can call our power to account?”
With that inspiration, I shall begin the challenge of setting my own record straight.
First, here is the full NYT story:
Slings and Arrows? Nothing New to Him
NY Times LAURA M. HOLSON March 13, 2011
BEN SHERWOOD, the recently appointed president of ABC News, sat in his New York office one afternoon in February, pitched forward in a mustard-colored armchair that barely contained his 6-foot-4-inch frame, discussing a 1988 profile of him in Spy magazine that still rankles. “The ultimate in a long line of centerless résumé featherers,” was how the piece’s author, Andrew Sullivan, described Mr. Sherwood, a Harvard graduate who was attending Oxford at the time on a Rhodes scholarship. “I don’t think there is a person in the world who would want to have their college persona written about and described in a satire magazine.,” Mr. Sherwood said. “ Every time I get a new job I’ve walked through an office into my new role and someone ‘accidentally’ left out a crinkled copy on a desk.” He said he did not recognize the ambitious overachiever Mr. Sullivan depicted more than 20 years ago, adding, “That is not even close to who I was then or who I am now.” And yet Mr. Sherwood, 47, is still the subject of caustic takedowns. His comings and goings warrant almost as much attention on Gawker as a Real Housewife. (“Nobody likes Ben Sherwood, a notoriously self-promoting former Good Morning America executive producer,” was the opening line of one recent post.) The Awl, a news and culture Web site, has twice posted an unflattering profile of Mr. Sherwood written after the release of “Charlie St. Cloud,” a movie based on one of his novels, and The New York Observer once described him as “aggressively aspirational.” Within two weeks of getting his most recent job, a video shot in the manner of an “ABC News Special Report,” and posted on the popular site Vimeo, called Mr. Sherwood “shallow and cloying.” Referring to his stint as executive producer of “Good Morning America,” it dubbed him the “Draco Malfoy of broadcast news.” Outside the insular world of television gossip, however, Mr. Sherwood can come off as a big softie. “The rap on Ben is that he is a machine,” said Barry Edelstein, director of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Initiative, who met Mr. Sherwood at Oxford. “But my relationship with him has to do with enormous amounts of emotion.” When Bruce Feiler, author of “Walking the Bible” and a columnist for the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, was stricken with cancer, he chose Mr. Sherwood, and several other friends, to teach his daughters how to live fully if he died. It was a relationship Mr. Feiler later described in his book “The Council of Dads.” Joni Evans, Mr. Sherwood’s longtime literary agent, said Mr. Sherwood “is really 10 different people.” Indeed, Mr. Sherwood has glided through disparate industries — broadcast news, Hollywood, book writing — with enviable ease, befriending along the way Diane Sawyer (who gushed about a photograph of the two of them, taken when he was an intern at CBS in the 1980s, that she said Mr. Sherwood kept on his office wall); Ellen Levine, the editorial director of Hearst Magazines; and Gary Lauder, the grandson of Estée Lauder. Unlike hard-driving broadcast executives of recent years, like the equally polarizing Jeff Zucker, Mr. Sherwood is a devoted off-ramper, taking breaks lasting years to write two romantic novels and the best seller “The Survivors Club,” coach his son’s soccer team and tend to his ailing mother. Each time he returned to news it was for a better job than the one he left behind, a source of discontent for devoted news careerists. “No one in media takes four years off and comes back,” said Grace Kahng, a friend of Mr. Sherwood. “That has got to really be annoying.” Back in his office, at times absently rubbing his hands together as if washing them with soap and water, Mr. Sherwood clearly did not want to talk about whether he deserved to run ABC News. He seemed more comfortable discussing the charmed youth soured by the Sullivan piece. “What I do know about that time,” Mr. Sherwood said, “was I was a guy with a lot to learn.” MR. SHERWOOD was born in Los Angeles in 1964, the son of Richard Sherwood, a prominent attorney, civic leader and art patron, and his wife, Dorothy, a homemaker. “Born to succeed” is how Tom Brokaw, the news broadcaster who knew the family when he lived in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, described Mr. Sherwood and his older sister, Elizabeth. Birthdays for the two siblings were “a big deal,” said Mr. Sherwood, who now makes morning congratulatory calls to ABC staffers on their birthdays. He looked up to his dad, who quizzed the children about current events at the dinner table. At Harvard, Mr. Sherwood studied American government and history, and showed a self-assurance and media savvy unusual even for Harvardians. As a senior in 1986, interviewed by The Los Angeles Times after his Rhodes scholarship was announced, he acknowledged that he might have rubbed some people the wrong way. “I think I was a little full of myself,” he said of his first year at Harvard. At Oxford he forged a tightknit circle of male friends that included Mr. Edelstein and Jeffrey Rosen, now a law professor at George WashingtonUniversity. (His sister was also a Rhodes scholar and is now an adviser to President Obama on the National Security Council.) The Spy article by Mr. Sullivan, titled “Resume Mucho,” part of a package on Rhodes scholars, included many negative testimonials about Mr. Sherwood from anonymous classmates. “My guess is that people were jealous,” said Joseph M. Torsella, a friend from those years and chairman of Pennsylvania’s State Board of Education. As Mr. Sherwood now says of the article, “I learned a lot about the power of words to create pain.” In 1989, he joined ABC’s “Primetime Live” as an investigative associate producer. Ms. Kahng, who worked with Mr. Sherwood at the time, recalled a production assistant carrying a manila folder in his hand, the Spy piece tucked inside. “He was running around and said, ‘Have you read it?’” Ms. Kahng said. “That set the tone. Everyone was gunning for his defeat.” Looking back, Mr. Sullivan, soon to be a columnist for The Daily Beast, expressed regret for the lingering impact. “I feel bad that it has unfairly dogged him all these years,” he wrote in an e-mail. “He was barely out of college at that point and the idea that it should still in any way define him is silly.” According to Mr. Sherwood, his character has been shaped far more by tragedy. On Aug. 12, 1992, he was part of a two-car caravan from “Primetime Live” traveling along “Sniper Alley” in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on assignment with Sam Donaldson, one of the show’s anchors; David Kaplan, Mr. Donaldson’s longtime producer; and Yugoslavia’s Prime Minister, Milan Panic. “I wanted so much to be a member of their club,” Mr. Sherwood said. At Sarajevo’s airport, Mr. Donaldson and Mr. Panic piled into an armored vehicle. They were trailed by a Volkswagen van carrying Mr. Sherwood, wearing a bulletproof vest and shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr. Kaplan, who was unprotected. As the van sped along, a sniper’s 9-millimeter bullet ripped through the back of the van and pierced Mr. Kaplan’s back, fatally severing his pulmonary artery. Then, on April 2, 1993, Mr. Sherwood got a phone call from his mother; his 64-year-old father was in a coma after a brain hemorrhage. The next day Mr. Sherwood flew to Los Angeles; his father died a week later. “The double whammy of those two set me on a course of thinking about issues I had never done before,” Mr. Sherwood said. He quit his job and moved into his mother’s home. “He needed to retreat,” Mr. Edelstein said. While there, he wrote a techno-thriller, “Red Mercury,” under the pseudonym Max Barclay. Soon, however, Ben Sherwood was back in business as himself. In 1997 he returned to New York and NBC News, where he later became the No. 2 producer for “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.” In 2000, he published a novel under his own name: “The Man Who Ate the 747,” which explored a man’s quest for true love. “When he wrote that book,” recalled Mr. Donaldson, “I said to him, ‘Ben, what is going on with you? Are you having a midlife crisis?’” Mr. Sherwood, who Mr. Feiler in his own book wrote “would have been ripe for a send-up on ‘Sex and the City’” because of the notable swath he cut through New York as a bachelor in the late 1990s, was poised for change. He was unmarried and working at NBC when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. On Sept. 10 he had gone on a date with Karen Kehela, a chairwoman of Imagine Entertainment, the movie production company owned by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Suddenly Mr. Sherwood had, he said, “a new, different sense of priorities.” (They married in 2003, and have two sons.) He quit NBC News in January 2002 to pursue his writing career anew. “One of the things about my path is that there are moments where I want to go do something different,” Mr. Sherwood said. Mr. Brokaw remembered Mr. Sherwood’s departure differently. “He didn’t stay because he didn’t get the No. 1 job at ‘Nightly News,’” he said. Mr. Sherwood responded: “My recollection and Tom’s are in disagreement.” Ms. Evans, Mr. Sherwood’s agent, described Mr. Sherwood as “an odd hybrid of imagination and discipline,” a quirky perfectionist who writes as many as 15 drafts before handing in a novel. For “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” the story of a young man clinging to the memory of his dead brother (later adapted into a movie starring Zac Efron), Mr. Sherwood spent a week at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, digging graves and consoling the grief-stricken, according to the book’s author’s note. For “The Survivors Club,” about why certain people get out of life-threatening situations, he was strapped into a seat and flipped upside down in a pool, required to unbuckle his harness underwater and swim to air. “He had a yearning to understand death,” said Mr. Rosen, his friend from Oxford. Mr. Sherwood perceives his process differently. “My way of thinking about it was not to write about loss and trauma,” he said, “but how to live.” THE December kerfuffle over Mr. Sherwood’s appointment as the president of ABC News can be traced, in part, to his two-and-a-half-year stint as the executive producer of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which he joined in 2004. “His charge was to get GMA ahead of the ‘Today’ show,” said Charles Gibson, an anchor at the time with Ms. Sawyer. Mr. Sherwood’s performance was mixed. In May 2005, “Good Morning America” came within 40,000 viewers of overtaking NBC’s ‘Today,’ largely because it heavily promoted the stars of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” “I chafed with that a little bit,” Mr. Gibson said. “Do I understand it? Sure. But synergy is not a news word.” Mr. Sherwood said, “If you go back and look at the tapes of him and Eva Longoria, chafing is not the word that comes to mind.” Two camps emerged on the “Good Morning America” set: those who were loyal to Shelley Ross, the veteran ABC producer Mr. Sherwood replaced, and others committed to the new regime. By the time Mr. Sherwood left the show in September 2006, the competitive gap with “Today” was wider than when he began. He moved with his wife to Los Angeles where, he said, he became a full-time author (again) who made morning waffles for his sons, wiped the tables at their nursery schools and coached soccer and Little League. Despite their disagreements, Mr. Gibson said the two men talked as often as twice monthly after Mr. Sherwood left “Good Morning America.”And Mr. Sherwood stayed in touch with Ms. Sawyer, now the anchor of ABC’s “World News,” who he said would occasionally e-mail him for advice on a story or interview. “I would watch television, and I would think about the news and talk to the television alone in a room in the way every producer involved in a show does,” he said, somewhat sheepishly. “Sometimes my wife would remind me I was alone in the room.” Late last summer Anne Sweeney, president of Disney/ABC Television Group, was looking for a replacement for David Westin, the longtime president of ABC News, who had announced he would be retiring. Mr. Sherwood was not on her radar, she said, until he called in early September to introduce himself and share some ideas regarding the news network. Two months later, she said, he called again, this time asking for a formal interview. By mid-November, a list of 30 candidates had narrowed to five. Mr. Sherwood was told over Thanksgiving that he had been selected. Asked whether she was worried whether Mr. Sherwood would quit in a few years to write books or pursue another career as he had so many times before, Ms. Sweeney just laughed. His wide-ranging experience in entertainment, she said, was a plus. In mid-December the anonymous video decrying Mr. Sherwood’s tenure at “Good Morning America” was posted on the Web. Ms. Ross, his predecessor, denied the handiwork was hers. She wrote on her blog days later, “Hey guys, I’m not anonymouse!” (a nod to Disney, which owns ABC). She added, “the debate over whether or not Ben Sherwood earned or even deserves the job is irrelevant.” Still, she called the video “wickedly funny.” Mr. Sherwood, seasoned at being an object of mockery, said he has never watched the video and did not intend to.“I also have no idea who put it there,” he said. “All I can say is this is a rough and tumblebusiness. In this culture and age it sort of comes with the territory.”
“Out Out, Damn Spot:” WHERE BEN’S NARRATIVE RUNS AFOUL OF MINE
According to the NYT report, “Two camps emerged on the “Good Morning America” set: those who were loyal to Shelley Ross, the veteran ABC producer Mr. Sherwood replaced, and others committed to the new regime. By the time Mr. Sherwood left the show in September 2006, the competitive gap with “Today” was wider than when he began. He moved with his wife to Los Angeles where, he said, he became a full-time author (again) who made morning waffles for his sons, wiped the tables at their nursery schools and coached soccer and Little League.”
For some time now, I’ve ignored the part of Ben’s narrative regarding his struggles during his tenure as executive producer at GMA. But now that it’s crept into the newspaper of record, I will bluntly address this latest effort to explain why he failed to take over the Today Show after coming within 40,000 viewers. It is a myth that two camps emerged on the GMA set, one loyal to me. To insinuate that somehow I had anything to do with such a scheme is an outright lie that the hundreds of people on the staff can verify.
The GMA staff had been built and mentored by me over a period of more than five years during which time they grew into an enviable force: an incredibly hard-working, smart and creative team dedicated to the success of the show. After more than five years of sustained growth and verifiable success, they worked in lockstep with each other.
When I left GMA, I really left, never once criticizing or second-guessing my replacement. I had chosen a higher ground than Sherwood who for months had lobbied for my job at ABC by secretly e-mailing the anchors, the management and anyone who would listen. He convinced Diane Sawyer, for one, that he was a secret consultant for Today. “Cruise ships,” he’d offer as if he had the keys to the kingdom, “they always rate.”
When Sherwood got the job, then failed to maintain the momentum of closing in on Today, I learned of his next narrative: that the staff had been so badly abused by me, they were unable to function; that Ben’s new mandate was to restore civility. This narrative suited our bosses at ABC who needed to explain their choice of an unproven executive producer who so quickly ran out of steam, losing the advantage of a 40,000-viewer gap all on his own.
David Westin, for one, would explain the growing viewer gap between GMA and Today as an expected “audience adjustment” as Charlie Gibson transitioned to anchor World News. No one listening to his closed-circuit address to the news division was any the wiser; that the “audience adjustment” he referenced happened while Gibson was still at GMA.
Although I had spent 17 years at ABC News, breaking stories, winning awards, re-building a morning show and helping to grow ABC’s income revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars, sadly, it was pretty easy for Ben Sherwood to create his new narrative at my expense. Gone was my long career of good journalism, integrity, loyalty and innovation proving that in ABC’s world of “anonymouses,” the high ground doesn’t mean very much.
When I went to CBS News, Ben Sherwood again insinuated himself in my career narrative, reportedly leaking false news items that he was about to replace me there, then committing a most heinous personal offense: leaking gossip about me to Page Six during the funeral of a most treasured friend and GMA colleague, James Bogdanoff.
James, who died at age 47 after a four-month battle with esophageal cancer, left a wife, an eight-year-old daughter and the two grown nephews he had raised as a younger man after the tragic deaths of his brother and sister-in-law just nine months apart.
At the time, Charlie Gibson, who was Ben’s gossip partner-in-crime, expressed great disappointment, not that he’d been caught inappropriately gossiping during a very sad funeral, but that Ben leaked their nasty conversation to the Post.
So, New York Times, please leave me out of future Ben Sherwood narratives. I’m sure you’d rather not, even inadvertently, become a partner in someone’s revisionist history… especially since you come extremely close in the Sunday piece to suggesting — through its odd placement and strange excerpting — that I was at all involved in the Ben Sherwood inaugural video.
Here’s What You Will Read in the NY Times Today:
“Ms. Ross, his predecessor, denied the handiwork was hers. She wrote on her blog days later, “Hey guys, I’m not anonymouse!” (a nod to Disney, which owns ABC). She added, “the debate over whether or not Ben Sherwood earned or even deserves the job is irrelevant.” Still, she called the video “wickedly funny.”
Here’s What I Actually Posted on My daily Xpress Blog:
“The debate over whether or not Ben Sherwood earned or even deserves the job is irrelevant. He’s got it and now he needs all the help he can get to rescue a decaying news division and move it into a bold new landscape.
“No one should have to begin an important new job with a recycled profile detailing how he’s feathered his resume his entire life, or a re-circulated e-mail which reveals how his wife or mother or whoever calls him “Doll,” helped write his Christmas message to the GMA staff. Certainly, no one needs to be cast as a viral joke.
“It’s time for the nastiness and finger pointing to stop. Ben Sherwood should be given some space along with the freedom to spend every working day proving the skeptics wrong and winning them over with real and measurable results.”
Does that sound a bit different to you?
Which brings me back to senseless hand-washing and imaginary spots of blood; a little water does not clear the deed. When the story is finally told, ABC News, like Macbeth, will not be judged by who got to be king or even how. Morality plays are far more complicated, their purpose far more profound.
(For more insights, see Macbeth Act V, scene V.)