A Hard Story for ABC to Report

Times Staff Writer

The roadside explosion in Iraq that left ABC News co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt seriously wounded Sunday also inflicted a demoralizing blow to the entire news division, which is still coping with the grief of abruptly losing Peter Jennings to lung cancer in August.

The network received word of Sunday's attack around 5 a.m. Soon afterward, somber employees -- including Woodruff's co-anchor, Elizabeth Vargas -- began assembling in the network's West 66th Street headquarters.

The staff spent most of the day gathered around the national desk next to the third-floor studio, waiting for updates. ABC News President David Westin, who was in contact with ABC producers in Iraq and military officials, regularly briefed employees in between calls to the men's wives.

"Everyone has just been standing by, hanging onto every piece of information," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.

ABC executives have not decided how to handle the broadcast in Woodruff's absence. On Sunday evening, Vargas anchored the newscast alone.

"Bob and Doug were in Iraq doing what reporters do, trying to find out what's happening there up close and firsthand," she said. "All of us are mindful of the risks and the dangers. Bob and Doug always take care to balance those risks with the need to report the story."

Since Woodruff and Vargas took the helm of the newscast Jan. 3, both have traveled to cover breaking stories -- she to West Virginia, Washington and Los Angeles; he to Tehran, Jerusalem and Northern California. ABC executives have cited their ability to get on the ground quickly and provide immediacy to stories as one of the advantages of a two-person anchor team.

Woodruff and Vogt arrived in Iraq on Friday after spending two days in Israel covering the Palestinian elections. They planned to remain in Iraq through Tuesday, when President Bush is scheduled to deliver the State of the Union address.

Woodruff and Vargas had filled in on "World News Tonight" as substitute anchors for much of last spring and summer while Jennings underwent chemotherapy, and they remained behind the desk for several months after his death.

In early December, ABC officials announced they had selected the pair to be the permanent faces of the broadcast. Network employees greeted the decision with relief, eager to finally have successors to Jennings in place and hopeful that the anchors would help usher in stability after the emotional swings of the last year.

ABC executives had cast the selection of the anchors, in their mid-40s, as a long-term pairing.

"I view this as a fundamentally solid plan for the next 25 years, the way Peter was when he came on for the 23 years or so that he was there," Westin told television reporters in Los Angeles this month.

The team started in January with an effort to deliver the news beyond the traditional 6:30 p.m. program. In the afternoons, Vargas and Woodruff have been hosts of a live webcast highlighting the top stories of the day. They also have been anchoring two late editions of "World News Tonight" that are updated and customized for West Coast viewers.

On Sunday, once network officials learned that Woodruff and Vogt were stable and on their way to a military hospital in Germany, Robert Murphy, a senior vice president of the news division, was dispatched to meet them there.

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