At the Controls

David Chalian brings a stage director's flair to running ABC News' political coverage.

by Tim Warren

David Chalian is not your usual political journalist. As political director of ABC News, he's well aware that the 2008 presidential campaign has been "literally a once-in-a-lifetime story." But when asked why he finds politics so compelling, he answers from the perspective of someone who majored not only in political science at Northwestern but also in theater, his first love.

"In politics, as in theater, you learn that the story is king — what the playwright gives you makes you or breaks you," Chalian (C95) says in his fifth-floor office at ABC's Washington, D.C., bureau. "To me, presidential politics is something bigger — Shakespearean, Greek.

"You have larger-than-life personalities. We get criticized for covering politics like a sport sometimes, and certainly the press is guilty of that, but there is a sport to it — strategy and gamesmanship. And mix in these fascinating characters! I can't imagine what it takes to wake up in the morning and think, 'I could be the leader of the free world.' That requires a gene I don't have, and that's why it's so fascinating to me — who are these people who think they can do good for this country and for the world? And what makes them tick?"

Then there is Chalian's unusual résumé. He entered journalism only 7½ years ago after jobs that included a stint as a researcher and assistant to performing artist Anna Deavere Smith. A position as a producer for the New York City cable network NY1 in 2001 led to his joining the political unit at ABC in 2003. Four years later Chalian was tapped for his current job.

And there's one more thing: David Chalian is nice. He's an attentive listener and unfailingly gracious. At first you think: Is he for real? Shouldn't he at least spit on the floor? Political journalists can be a cynical, even surly, bunch, but Chalian exudes decency. Asked about it, he says, a bit sheepishly, "That's how my mother raised me."

Mark Halperin, who brought Chalian to ABC and promoted him to be his deputy in 2005 before quitting the political director's position in March 2007 to go to Time magazine, says his successor's background works in his favor.

"David shows extraordinary fidelity to the best traditions of American political journalism," Halperin says. "He's a gifted political journalist with traditional values. He knows how to report, and he's a very hard worker. But he also understands the new age of political journalism — how to operate across platforms and reach broad audiences on TV and narrow audiences on the web. And having worked in local TV news and theater gives him a much broader perspective."

As for being Mr. Nice Guy?

"I would never minimize the importance of how nice he is and how well he gets along with people," Halperin says. "He's the most empathetic person, personally and professionally, that I've ever worked with."

Chalian confesses that "walking through my career path, it's amazing to me that 7½ years ago I had never done anything remotely like this, and now I have this dream job." He seems almost embarrassed in saying this, but one also senses a confident inner core. "It's not brain surgery," he says. "You have to hone your news judgment, and that takes time. But in essence it's just storytelling."

There's more to it, of course. His energy and enthusiasm are palpable, which is a good thing because Chalian works a crushing schedule, getting up every morning at 5:30 and going nonstop till 10 p.m. or later. He is constantly monitoring the competition — he has four mini-monitors attached to the wall next to his desk, and he spends hours each day going through newspaper stories and blogs on the Internet. Perhaps the best measure of his regimen is the casual observation that he gets 1,000 e-mails a day. "I don't know what life without a BlackBerry is like," he says ruefully. "This job is 24/7. It is not good for your health, either physical or mental."

Each day there are meetings within the political unit and with the shows for which it provides content, such as Good Morning America, World News and Nightline, and it is Chalian's job to provide his analysis of the top political stories and how they should be covered. He also is in constant contact with the candidates' campaigns, hearing complaints from the campaigns, setting up interviews and generally maintaining ABC's presence. "That can get very tricky," Halperin says. "The network wants what it wants, and the campaigns want what they want. You can get a kind of tunnel vision in which neither party wants to split the baby. David is very good at working through that."

The 2008 campaign has been in many ways groundbreaking — the historic candidacies of Barack Obama (H06) and Hillary Rodham Clinton and records in voter turnout and fundraising. The coverage of the campaign has also changed, starting earlier and becoming more digitalized than ever. "I remember in 2004 people here were talking about us doing podcasts," Chalian says. "And I thought, 'What's a podcast?'"

Now, he says, "So much of the campaign is happening in the digital universe. And this campaign, in the digital universe, has been every moment of every day. " In November 2007 ABC entered into a collaboration with Facebook to sponsor a series of primary debates and create a "U.S. Politics" page on the social networking web site.

In addition, ABC News produces Politics Live, a daily webcast that regularly features Chalian and the venerable Sam Donaldson as co-hosts. Chalian says emphatically that he has no interest in becoming a correspondent, but it's clear that he enjoys being on camera. "It's a good break from my other duties," he says. "And I get to use my performative skills."

Donaldson describes the show as "catnip for political junkies. The best part is when David and I chitchat about the day's events. He just shines. You see the depth of his knowledge and wit."

On a late May show they were debating whether Clinton would drop out of the campaign and whether she was hurting the Democratic Party by staying in the race. Chalian stumbled in his delivery a few times, but mostly he came close to what he described as his mission on the show: "To provide a sharp, concise analysis in six seconds."

Halperin notes that very few political journalists do both behind-the-scenes work and appear on camera, but in a sense Chalian is merely perpetuating his Northwestern experience. With Bud Beyer as his acting teacher, Chalian appeared in a number of plays, such as a production of The Rose Tattoo. But he also discovered he enjoyed directing: His credits included Ordinary People and Reunion, a one-act play by David Mamet.

Acknowledging that directing "was probably what I enjoyed most," he was asked why. Chalian paused, as he often does while considering an answer.

"Probably because I have a touch of control freak in me," he says good-naturedly. "When you're a director, you're at the helm of that collaborative process and not just playing a part in it."

Nicely said — as usual.

Tim Warren is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.

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