And the winner is …. “Diane Sawyer to anchor ABC ‘World News.’ ”
In case you missed it, right up there with Afghanistan, health-care reform and swine flu is the news that someone other than Charles Gibson will be anchoring the flagship ABC evening program “World News” next year. Whew! Yes, Diane Sawyer is going to read us the news–all 22 minutes of it.
And why not Diane Sawyer? She is one of the most gifted people working in television, and she must be heartily sick of getting up at 3:30 a.m.
If there is a better resume floating around ABC News, it is hard to think whose it might be. Sawyer got her start as a local television reporter in Louisville, Ky. She worked as a press assistant in the Nixon White House. After Nixon’s retirement, she helped the president write his autobiography and prepare for the legendary interviews with British journalist David Frost.
In television, Sawyer has been a star for nearly 40 years. Energy, ability, hard work were taken at the flood and led on to victory. Compared to the dolly-bird journalists so favored in television these days, all peroxide and lip gloss, Sawyer is the real thing: an capable, experience journalist.
So why is she going to helm the evening news? Because, foolishly, both we and the networks–even in the twilight of their being–are in a time warp where we think it is important who reads the news at night. It is the Walter Cronkite-Edward Murrow legacy.
Yet those of us who know something about television, know that reading the news is a sinecure. If you are a halfway decent sight-reader, the work is light lifting. The networks and the anchors have tried to conceal this by making the anchors “managing editors,” but the subterfuge has its limits.
Television news is put together by a phalanx of producers and correspondents and it is, in fact, hard for the anchor to substantially reshape the product. The anchor’s views can be known and over time, and he or she can change the product by changing the culture. This can also be expressed as firing people you do not agree with. A friend of mine at ABC got cast into outer darkness when the anchor changed.
These upheavals are taken for granted. Television is a tough business in which the few who get to the top are well rewarded, but many fall victim to the star system and the star’s team.
I wrote for television anchors once and they were of two schools: Those who showed up and read what was put in front of them and those sought to influence what was put in front of them. We, the writers, liked the former and loathed the latter. We were proud of our work and did not want it denigrated by some star.
But the networks want to promote the concept that the newscaster is some kind of uber-journalist who spends long hours covering the news, bullying sources, confronting bureaucrats and exposing fraudsters. In reality, they are driven around in limousines, have lunches with other famous people at expensive restaurants, and spend a lot of time suggesting to the producers that they read an article in some newspaper, especially The New York Times. Often the skill of the producers is in parrying these suggestions. In Evelyn Waugh’s great comic novel “Scoop,” the protagonist parries the proprietor’s suggestions by saying, “to a point, Lord Copper.”
As fewer and fewer of us get our news from the networks, it is curious that who is going to read it to us is still newsworthy. It is not curious why someone would want the job. It pays wondrously and has all the prestige you can stand. The only downside is the ratings: the daily goad delivered by the Nielsen company.
I think Diane Sawyer will be a great anchor and she will be able to take it easier than at “Good Morning America.” But we will be deprived of her talent which has shined at breakfast time for a decade. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate