When Arledge, who had built his reputation as president of ABC Sports, was named to head the network’s news division, he hired Wald in 1978 as his senior VP in charge of overseeing all news programming. Wald made World News Tonight the industry leader, lured David Brinkley from NBC News to host This Week with David Brinkley on Sunday mornings and gave the celebrated late-night show Nightline, then hosted by Ted Koppel, its name.
In 1999, Wald became the first Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media Society at Columbia, teaching courses in national reporting and media ethics at the Journalism School for many years. He was a professor emeritus when he died at 92.
“He was one of the giants of the industry of journalism,” said Koppel. “When you consider everything he did over the years — whether we’re talking about NBC, ABC and ultimately Columbia — I don’t think you’ll find many of us quite like him.”
Wald, who began his career in print journalism, was managing editor of the New York Herald Tribune before it folded and often was quoted as saying, “I didn’t leave newspapers; newspapers left me.” He was prescient when, in a March 1976 speech at a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Chicago, he predicted that TV news, then confined to a half-hour per night, would become a 24-hour operation filled with talking heads and so-called experts. “I would bet that, owing to the technology with which we are faced, within 10 years there will be an all-news television station,” he predicted. He was right; Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980.
Wald was the model for the news division president played by William Holden in the scathing 1976 film Network. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky shadowed Wald for two days to capture his routine and speech patterns and be able to accurately reflect TV news jargon, as reported in the book Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies by Dave Itzkoff.
Wald made sure that all ABC News stories met the journalistic standards he had learned in the print world. “He was a perfect No. 2 for Roone because he had great news values and a great feel for events,” Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame told The New York Times. Wald brought Bernstein to ABC News as a correspondent and Washington bureau chief in the 1980s before Bernstein returned to The Washington Post.
Born on March 19, 1930, in Manhattan, Wald graduated from Stuyvesant H.S. He majored in English literature and was on the editorial board of Spectator, where his colleagues included Max Frankel ’52, ’53 GSAS, who became executive editor of the Times, and Lawrence Grossman ’52, who became president of PBS and NBC News. As undergraduates, they and Arledge shared an off-campus residence.
After earning an M.A. in English and comparative literature in 1953 from GSAS, Wald spent two years studying English at Clare College, Cambridge, before returning to work for the Herald Tribune. He was a foreign reporter in Europe and Africa before becoming managing editor. He collaborated with early leaders of the “new journalism” movement such as Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and Gail Sheehy.
After brief stints at the New York World Journal Tribune and The Washington Post, Wald joined NBC News in 1968 and became president five years later. He moved Tom Brokaw from White House correspondent to host of the Today show and hired Jane Pauley as co-host, and created a special unit to produce long-form reports for NBC Nightly News. He resigned in 1977 after disputes with upper management over issues including the signing of politicians to exclusive and expensive contracts.
He briefly was a consultant at PBS and a special assistant to Otis Chandler, publisher of The Los Angeles Times, before Arledge recruited him to join ABC News in 1978 for what would be a 21-year career. At his retirement, Wald said that “it had been my privilege to help in the construction of one of the great international news operations in the world. I have enjoyed every day of it.”
Wald was a long-serving chairman of Spectator's Board of Directors and sat on the boards of the Pulitzer Prizes, DuPont Awards and Peabody Awards.
He was predeceased in 2021 by his wife of 67 years, Edith; and is survived by his sons, Matthew, a former reporter for the Times, and Jonathan ’87, a former executive producer of Today and NBC Nightly News; daughter, Elizabeth; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Speaking about his father to NBC, Jonathan said, “He loved world events, big stories and small. He loved details and getting it right.”
— Alex Sachare ’71
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