ABC News expands medical coverage

Hires Dr. Richard Besser as senior editor

ABC News has hired a top government doctor as part of an expansion of its medical coverage.

Dr. Richard Besser, who was acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when the swine flu epidemic began earlier this year, will join the network as senior health and medical editor.

ABC also promoted its longtime health commentator, Dr. Timothy Johnson, to chief medical editor. Johnson is a regular on "Good Morning America," "World News," Nightline" and "20/20."

"Over 30 years, Dr. Tim has established himself as the leading on-air authority for all things related to health and medicine," most recently on health care reform, says a statement from ABC News President David Westin. Besser "proved his mettle as a highly effective communicator of health issues" during swine flu and will be a strong addition, the statement says.

Besser, 49, a pediatrician, plans to report on obesity, flu and other public health issues for multiple programs starting in September.

Swine flu "really drove home to me the importance of communication and translating science into language that people can understand," Besser said. The new job "provides me the ability to have major impact on people's health."

Besser spent 13 years at CDC and most recently headed its office for bioterrorism and emergency preparedness. He started a campaign for proper use of antibiotics to curb the rise of hard-to-treat superbugs. He had been mentioned as a possible candidate to lead CDC, but that job went to former New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Meanwhile, a conservative media watchdog said Besser donated $400 to President Barack Obama's campaign last year. Two $200 contributions turn up on, the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics. Given that Besser will report on the health care reform debate, "how in the world is this ethical?" said Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center.

ABC News spokeswoman Cathie Levine noted that Besser has worked as a civil servant in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He's a doctor "who's job it is to give impartial and unvarnished advice and he'll be able to do the same for a television audience," Levine said.

Besser has previous television experience -- he made weekly appearances discussing medical topics on a show in San Diego while he directed a pediatric residency program in the 1990s. He met his wife, Jeanne, a food writer, during his first outbreak investigation for the CDC in 1991. They have two sons.