Setting His Sights

When ABC News correspondent John Miller was unexpectedly summoned to news chief David Westin’s office last winter, Miller feared the worst. He had more than 25 years of reporting experience—and his rare 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden was then being replayed all over the network’s news shows. But when “David asked me to sit down,” recalls Miller, 43, “I said, ‘Am I getting fired?’ ”

So much for news instincts. What Miller was really getting was the chance to join Barbara Walters as coanchor of the network’s venerable 20/20 news magazine. He recovered quickly. Instantly, he recalls, “I said, I’ll take it.’ ”

After three months Miller is settling into the coanchor’s chair vacated by Hugh Downs in 1999. “John has great charm and humor,” says Walters. “There is a nice ease and warmth between us.” But for Miller, who spent two decades covering crime for local TV stations in New York City, the best part is that he is able to combine field reporting with his anchor duties. “I was never out for face time on TV,” says Miller. “I always liked the reporting part most.”

Even as a sixth grader. That’s when Miller decided to follow his father, John, a National Enquirer reporter (who died in 1985), into journalism. Born in New York City but raised from age 9 in nearby Montclair, N.J., Miller and his older sister Gregg (a private detective who died of diabetes in 1999) went out on stories with their dad, who introduced them to some of the biggest names in both Hollywood and organized crime. “We had all those characters around the house,” recalls Miller’s mom, Cindy, 69, a Manhattan jewelry designer. “Sammy Davis Jr. used to love my meatballs and sauce.” Itching to be on “the front lines of whatever was happening,” 11-year-old John shot a car crash near his home with his dad’s Brownie camera and offered it to the town paper. By the time he was 16 he was working after school at a local TV station, monitoring police radio calls. “Friends would say, ‘We got high behind the garage last night, what did you do?’ ” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘I went to a triple homicide in The Bronx.’ ”

The reporting put a crimp in Miller’s study habits—he missed so many classes he didn’t graduate from high school until he was 20—but it paid off. Working in local television, he earned a reputation as one of the city’s top TV crime reporters, scoring the first on-camera exchange with Mafia boss John Gotti in 1987 and eventually going overseas to cover Colombian drug cartels and terrorism in the Middle East. But in 1994 he gave up journalism to join the New York City Police Department as deputy commissioner for public information. “I thought, ‘What if you spent your days not just talking about it?’ ” he says. ” ‘What if you were doing it?’ ”

The following year Miller returned to journalism, eventually joining ABC as an investigative correspondent in 1997. His coverage of terrorism led him to a cave in Afghanistan where he interviewed al-Qaeda leader bin Laden in May 1998. Miller remembers bin Laden’s “benign little smile” and “soft, almost effeminate voice.” But “behind the kind eyes and the fatherly tone,” he notes, “he’s saying, ‘You and your friends need to die.’ ”

His terrorism expertise won him a deal to cowrite (with crime journalist Michael Stone) a book on terrorism for Hyperion due later this year. But the extra workload leaves less time for his favorite hobbies: visiting jazz clubs and relaxing on his boat, a 27-ft. Boston Whaler he keeps near his 100-year-old five-bedroom home on Shelter Island, N.Y. (He also has a small Manhattan apartment.) Never married, Miller—who went on a date once in the early ’80s with a then-unknown Julia Roberts (“She was lamenting living in the shadow of her brother Eric,” he recalls)—has also had to cut back on dating. “I have no social life,” he says. But his new gig almost makes up for it. “I love the action,” says Miller. “It’s the front-row seat to the greatest show on earth.”

Susan Horsburgh

Mary Green on Shelter Island

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