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Patience wears thin at ABC News as frustrated staffers wonder when Disney will make leadership changes

Analysis by Oliver Darcy, CNN

New York (CNN) — Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

When ABC News staffers phoned into the network’s daily editorial meeting on Thursday, they quickly took note of the absence of their ostensible boss, President Kim Godwin.

Hours after CNN reported about how Godwin is skating on thinning ice, the embattled news chief was nowhere to be found as staffers assembled to discuss the day’s coverage plans. Instead, the call was led by Debra OConnell, the Disney-appointed executive who was tapped in February for a new role overseeing the news outlet, and who is meticulously conducting a thorough review of Godwin’s portfolio.

After the meeting concluded, a person familiar with the situation told CNN that Godwin was simply at a prescheduled doctor’s appointment. Regardless, the rampant speculation her absence spurred spoke to the apprehension of staffers, who are thirsty for change and whose patience is wearing thin.

Over the last 24 hours CNN spoke with more than 20 people inside and close to the network, many of whom made contact on their own volition to candidly share their complaints about Godwin and the era of angst she has ushered in since taking the helm in 2021. The newsroom leader, they have said, has made several profound errors, including her hands-off approach to governing, a lack of strategic vision for the newsroom, the elimination of talent-relations leadership, the appointment of an inner-circle that has alienated staffers, among a stream of other complaints.

Internally, OConnell is viewed as a problem solver willing to personally get in the trenches and directly address issues, while Godwin is widely viewed as an absentee boss focused primarily on her self-image. Staffers who spoke cannot offer enough praise for the former, while it seems that everyone has a gripe about the latter — a reality that CNN was told very much irks Godwin.

OConnell, who was greeted with a firehose of complaints about Godwin upon assuming her post, surely understands that change is necessary. And her bosses in Burbank must too. Bob Iger is known to pay special attention to ABC News and OConnell wouldn’t have been appointed had Disney brass not felt it necessary. Further, in private conversations, OConnell has been candid about the mistakes she believes her new subordinate has made. And it doesn’t take a clairvoyant leader to feel the sense of frustration and anxiety radiating through the organization.

Akin to the final days of Chris Licht’s tenure at CNN last summer, it is evident that Godwin has lost the room, her stewardship no longer sustainable. As one media executive familiar with ABC News said, it is obvious she no longer has “the confidence of the newsroom.” And it is clear to staffers that OConnell is now the actual leader of the network.

“She knew it was bad, but I don’t think she knew how bad it was,” a network insider told CNN.

Ironically, Godwin entered ABC News three years ago as the first Black woman to lead a broadcast television news division with the mandate of healing its culture, only to exacerbate its problems and help sap the competitive spirit that once coursed through and animated the newsroom. It’s now up to OConnell to dig ABC News out of the ditch and infuse it with its old swagger.

And she is hard at work on a plan to repair the organization, quietly soliciting advice from industry figures about who should be installed in the network’s C-suite, according to people familiar with the conversations. CNN has also been told that initial inquiries have been made with potential candidates who might be interested in assuming the post of network president in a post-Godwin era. (An ABC News spokesperson denied the overtures had been made.)

The 90-day milestone of OConnell taking the reins as top boss is quickly approaching on May 14. Some staffers are speculating that change could be on the horizon to coincide with the date. But that seems, for now, to mostly be wishful thinking. It is indicative, however, of how desperate some are to see a changing of the guard.

While some are asking when this ugly chapter at ABC News will come to an end, the number of pages remaining is a closely-guarded secret known only to OConnell and Disney brass.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN-Opinion

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