Stepping Down  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2005

Stepping Down   

Retiring NBC News executive Bill Wheatley reflects on three decades in network news.

By Sarah Clark
Clark is a former AJR editorial assistant.      


The fall of communism. The Challenger explosion. The horror of September 11.

The world has changed dramatically in the last three decades, but in the broadcast industry, technology and public perception have changed the most, says Bill Wheatley, outgoing executive vice president of NBC News.

"What hasn't changed," Wheatley says, "is the importance of covering the news well and presenting the news in a way that people understand it."

Wheatley, 60, retires in June after 30 years at NBC, where he produced the award-winning "Nightly News with Tom Brokaw" from 1985 to 1990 and since has coordinated the network's national and international news coverage. He was named executive vice president in late April.

The changes in technology have been constant, Wheatley says, reflecting on his career. The industry steadily transitioned through an age of tape and small live cameras to highly sophisticated electronic editing systems, digital technologies and satellites. All positive changes, he adds, "which have permitted the television media to practice their craft on tight deadlines from virtually any place in the world."

But faster technology requires faster news judgments by news executives, a task at which Wheatley has excelled, says NBC News President Neal Shapiro.

Not quite so positive, however, has been the public's perception of the media, which polls continue to show as trending downward. "I don't think there's any doubt that the media are less trusted than they once were by the public," Wheatley says, adding that "the public has made a judgment that journalism is business, and maybe that wasn't as clear to people 25 years ago as it is now."

While the media have made their share of missteps in recent years, Wheatley says it's important to keep in mind that much criticism comes from people with political agendas who "find [the news media] a convenient whipping boy. Surely their constant criticism has had some effect on the public's view of the media."

With the advent of cable news networks and the Internet, Americans have far more news sources to choose from than in the past, which Wheatley sees as a good thing. The heightened competition has forced executives to search for new, enticing ways to present the news. In such a crowded and confusing landscape, powerful and unbiased reporting is critical to building public confidence, Wheatley says.

Wheatley began his career as a management trainee at an NBC affiliate station in Boston in 1967, a year after graduating from Boston College with a B.A. in history. He received an M.S. in broadcasting from Boston University in 1970.

Wheatley rose through the ranks as editor, producer and executive after joining NBC News in 1975. Heavily involved in national political coverage, he hasn't missed a New Hampshire primary or national political convention since.

One of his career highlights was producing the only live broadcast of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "It's always nice to have an exclusive on such an important world story," he says. He's particularly proud of the network's coverage of the Challenger explosion, the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the war in Iraq.

After many years of being on call whenever breaking news erupted, Wheatley says he's looking forward to some time off. He has no definite plans, beyond confronting an ever-accumulating pile of books, an "eclectic" mix ranging from history to mystery to architecture. He won't be away from the news business for long, though, as he wants to continue to contribute to the industry, possibly through teaching or writing.

That's Wheatley's future. But what about the future of TV news? "The challenge remains not to mix reporting and opinion," Wheatley says. "There are many questions as to where broadcast journalism is headed, but I believe that there will always be a demand for reporting that is focused, fair and accurate."

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