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Television

ABC’s ‘World News Tonight’ anchor David Muir reflects on two years behind the desk

David Muir
David Muir is the anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” where he took over two years ago.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

In the two years since David Muir took over as anchor of “ABC World News Tonight,” he’s done town hall specials with President Obama and Pope Francis (the latter requiring hours of lessons in conversational Spanish) and moderated primary debates with both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. He’s done his evening newscast from San Bernardino; Orlando, Fla.; Paris; and Brussels to report on terrorist attacks, and Dallas, where five policemen were shot dead in July.

There are Fridays when Muir signs off and then heads to far-flung locations to do enterprise reporting, such as an upcoming series following the journeys of Syrian refugees to the U.S.

While much of the country is enjoying Labor Day barbecues, Muir is in Ohio, where he will conduct an exclusive interview with the Democratic presidential ticket of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine that will air across ABC News programs starting Tuesday.

If he’s overcompensating to counter any notion that the network evening newscast is at risk of becoming a dinosaur in today’s media environment — where information is available anytime on multiple devices – his strategy appears to be working. With around 8.5 million viewers a night, “ABC World News Tonight” has its largest audience since the 2006-07 season, a time when Oprah Winfrey’s syndicated talk show was still a potent lead-in on many of the network’s affiliates. It’s running about 3% behind the ratings leader “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.”

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The peripatetic and always camera-ready Muir, 42, recently spent some time in his office at ABC News headquarters in Manhattan reflecting on his second anniversary in the job. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

You took over “ABC World News Tonight” from Diane Sawyer, who was already a big star when she became anchor. What was the biggest difference for you coming in?

I’m just a kid from Syracuse, N.Y., and I still feel that way. I’m the kid who wrote the letter to the local newsman when I was 13 years old and became an intern who was grateful I could ride in the back of the news cruiser. I was grateful then and I’m still grateful when I walk every single night to that news desk.

Is there any particular stamp you’ve put on the program since you’ve taken it over?

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I have always felt if I could not be the reporter I was before I got this job, that people who got to know me through the reporting I’ve done would wonder, “What happened to this guy?” Last weekend after the [Aug. 19] broadcast, we flew to Amman, Jordan. We’ve been following Syrian refugees in America for more than a year now. We’ve been all over this country and we went there to see their starting point, and the cultural orientation class they take to see what they learn about America. Then we took a red-eye back on a Monday. I hope that, over time, people will see that thirst and hunger for curiosity is truly what drives me. It fuels me. I hope they see it in this newscast every night.

You’ve spent a week doing double duty on “Good Morning America” this summer.  Do you ever see yourself doing that show every day?

You never say never. But I love doing “World News Tonight” and I hope to be doing it for a long time.

A lot of old timers from ABC News criticize “World News Tonight” for spending too much time on the weather. Why is it a story that deserves the time you give it?

I’ll point out that last night “NBC Nightly News” led with the weather and we did not. That’s not even a criticism of them. In most cases when we talk about weather it affects people’s lives. We had the flood-ravaged South. We had tornadoes outside of Indianapolis in the last 24 hours. I’m proud of our team.  I stand by our reporting…When you’re standing in those places with utter devastation surrounding you, try telling those families that reporting it wasn’t important.

You pointed out how much traveling you’ve done in two years – and a lot of those trips have been to cover terror attacks and mass shootings. Is there a danger of getting desensitized to these events because there have been so many of them?

I do worry about that. There are moments along the way when I feel it – that concern as to whether people are grasping the full amount of human toll here. We were standing in front of that nightclub in Orlando; there are so many young people who were gone in an instant. We were interviewing the friends who survived. Fifty lives lost in a matter of minutes. And I did think the next night, and the next night and the next night - that even though we were continuing to do reporting on that story – how are we moving on so quickly with so much loss of life? It felt so wrong.

Breaking news situations often require all three anchors get on planes and take off for the same location. What’s the relationship like between the three of you?

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Lester Holt and I have a shared background in that we spent many years doing the weekend evening news broadcasts. Those teams are much smaller and much more intimate. So I think we have an unspoken bond in that way. But I have a certain amount of respect for both [“NBC Nightly News” and “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.”] Given that we’re in the tightest race with “NBC Nightly News” in over a decade is a sign we have both upped our game. I believe it benefits the viewer.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received since taking the anchor chair?

When I first got the job, [the late ABC News anchor] Peter Jennings’ wife Kayce came in and she was carrying a little package for me. I won’t say what was in the package, but I will say it was deeply personal and extraordinarily kind of her.

Was it something that belonged to him?

Yes. We had dinner together not long after, and she said that one of the things she would talk about with Peter often is that -- you can’t do it all.

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