James Goldston left suddenly in January and gave no specific reason for doing so
Tension between ABC News morning anchor George Stephanopoulos and evening star David Muir over the anchor title led to the sudden exit of ABC News chief James Goldston in January, TheWrap has learned.
Goldston announced his exit suddenly on Jan. 28 after 17 years at the network, giving no reason for the departure and telling his staff, "After a great deal of reflection over the last few months, I'm ready for a new adventure."
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According to three people with knowledge of the situation, Walt Disney Chairman of General Entertainment Content Peter Rice blamed Goldston for mismanaging the brewing conflict between the network's top news talent, who each wanted to be the go-to person on air when news broke.
Specifically, Rice faulted Goldston for not telling Stephanopoulos that Muir would be leading special events and breaking news after President Joe Biden's January inauguration. As former president Donald Trump's second impeachment began to ramp up and Muir prepared to lead coverage, Stephanopoulos felt blindsided and threatened to quit.
"This is all about: Who gets to sit in the chair during special events coverage?" one of the insiders told TheWrap. "This is the pettiness of people battling over scraps."
A Disney executive denied that Rice fired Goldston for his handling of ABC News' top stars. The spokeswoman said she was unaware of the reason Goldston left the company. Two insiders confirmed that Goldston's departure announcement was unplanned.
The British-American Goldston had a reputation for reticence that could lead to management problems. "He would never tell anyone anything that's uncomfortable," said an ABC veteran no longer at the company.
The insiders confirmed that Disney executive chairman Bob Iger flew from L.A. to New York with Rice despite the pandemic to calm Stephanopoulos around Muir's promotion, as CNN reported Monday. Stephanopoulos emerged with more money, the promise of a new title and a production company, the individuals added.
Goldston had exited just before that trip, the insiders said. According to one individual with knowledge of the situation, Stephanopoulos felt Goldston hadn't been forthcoming about Muir's new role and Rice "threw Goldston under the bus" as a result.
As a third ABC News insider put it, "This isn't about tension between two anchors. This is about tension between George and management and his fury with the bosses."
According to one insider, Muir demanded -- and received -- a guarantee in his 2019 contract renewal that he would anchor breaking news and special events after the 2021 inauguration. For his part, Stephanopoulos agreed to give up the "chief anchor" title after the 2021 inauguration, but apparently did not understand that Muir would take over the breaking-news leadership role.
An ABC News source denied that Muir demanded the guarantee, saying, "The other 6:30 p.m. anchors lead special events coverage so this is a natural evolution. The network approached David a couple of years ago with a long term commitment for the future and asked for his patience and he's done just that."
Muir was negotiating from a position of strength.
After taking over for Diane Sawyer in 2014, Muir led "World News Tonight" past NBC's "Nightly News With Lester Holt" to become the dominant evening newscast on broadcast TV. For the last 5 years, the show has been the most-watched newscast in America -- and won the 2019-2020 season in every major demo, including total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
Meanwhile, "Good Morning America," which Stephanopoulos anchors along with Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan, has undergone a ratings freefall since 2014 that is slightly steeper than that of archrival NBC's "Today" in both total audience and the key demographic. In recent years, "GMA" has held a slight edge in total viewers, while "Today" has led in the demo.
It has been widely known that there is no love lost between ABC's two star anchors. Stephanopoulos regards Muir as lacking substance, while Muir thinks his rival is a "mediocre broadcaster," as one insider put it. According to that individual, Stephanopoulos would assert his seniority by occupying the anchor chair during any special events coverage, staying until 6:29, p.m. ET, the last possible minute before relinquishing the throne to Muir for "World News Tonight," which airs at 6:30 p.m. "It was a source of tremendous bitterness" to Muir, the insider said.
Neither Muir nor Stephanopoulos responded to requests for comment.
Under the new arrangement, Stephanopoulos will be taking on new roles in production, which will include creating four hour-long specials that will air in primetime. He'll also create new programming for Hulu and National Geographic, both of which are owned by ABC parent company Disney.
When Goldston announced his decision to step down at the end of January, Rice said he was "grateful" for the executive's leadership and called him "an integral part of the ABC News legacy for 17 years" who "has always championed journalistic excellence."
Tony Maglio contributed to this story.