COMMENTS: Diane’s Intense First Day

This was Diane Sawyer's first day on the job as anchor of ABC's World News. Despite the anchor's name being on the title of the newscast…and her face adorning its publicity and promotion…and her job description as managing editor, I have always maintained that the nightly newscasts are, ultimately, a correspondent's medium not an anchor's medium. The anchor's role is to provide continuity, tone and nuance to the stories that she introduces. The meat of the newscast is produced by the reporters and their teams in the field. Nevertheless, first impressions count for something. So how did Sawyer perform on her first day in her new chair?

She acquired a new nickname. She grabbed more limelight than an anchor usually occupies. As managing editor, she scored a passing grade on story selection, a lower grade on copy scrutiny. She changed her newscast's format to mimic NBC's soft third segment. As for tone, her intensity on the first day in a new job seemed jarring.

ABC, unlike CBS and NBC, made the correct decision for its lead story. The Story of the Day was the midnight vote in the United States Senate on healthcare reform legislation. The vote did not pass the bill but it was a required 60-40 supermajority that prevented its blockage by filibuster. When healthcare eventually comes to a vote it will need only 51 votes for passage but to get there Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader, needed to corral support from nine extra senators. ABC had Jonathan Karl lead its newscast from Capitol Hill with anecdotes of the sweeteners--$100m for Nebraska and $600m for Vermont and asbestos coverage for Montana--that helped Reid's 60 stay together. "Outraged Republicans are accusing Democrats of buying votes." CBS, by the way, covered the same sweeteners in Wyatt Andrews' Reality Check.

Sawyer's newscast properly pursued the healthcare stories by assigning Dan Harris to answer Frequently Asked Questions about the bill's contents, followed by This Week anchor--and Sawyer's successor at Good Morning America--George Stephanopoulos summarizing the major outstanding differences between the House and the Senate. They concern taxes and abortion. Similar tasked were performed by Kelly O'Donnell on NBC and Chip Reid on CBS.

It was Sawyer's first day on the job as World News managing editor so she can be forgiven, in such a press, for a failure of full scrutiny of her correspondents' copy. It was somewhat jarring, however, that right next to one another, Harris should reassure viewers who already have health insurance that "there is nothing in either bill that would force you to lose the insurance you have right now…The bill does not change the status quo." That immediately followed Karl calling the legislation "an ambitious restructuring of the health insurance system." So what is it? Continuity or change?

It was only then that ABC turned to the lighter story that CBS and NBC had both selected for their newscasts' lead--airline delays and disruptions. There was a topical angle and a regulatory one. ABC's Lisa Stark covered the former first, the backlog of congestion following the heavy weekend snowstorm along the mid-Atlantic coast: "The problem today was not new cancelations but dealing with all those passengers--perhaps as many as half a million of them--who have been stranded over the last two days." ABC's Stark concluded with the angle that CBS' Jim Axelrod and NBC's Tom Costello emphasized: the Federal Aviation Administration will prohibit domestic airliners from stranding passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours as they await takeoff.

Next up was a Sawyer showcase that contradicted the Tyndall Report maxim that the nightly newscasts are a correspondent's medium. Instead we saw a pre-taped interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, edited to a four-minute segment. It turns out that there was a major news event taking place in Iran, the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, a onetime leader of the Islamic Revolution, later a champion of the political opposition--but ABC did not have a correspondent in Qom to cover it. Only NBC filed as the mourning turned political, with a brief stand-up by Ali Arouzi in Teheran.

As for Sawyer's One on One with Ahmadinejad, she asked him about Iran's nuclear program and about the protests against his reelection. Shades of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction debate--Sawyer referred to a document which "purports to show that Iran has been testing a neutron initiator, which is a trigger for a nuclear weapon" as The Smoking Gun. Ahmadinejad called it a "fabricated bunch of papers." Sawyer asked if he expected to face economic sanctions. He did: "If you are saying you are going to impose sanctions, then go and do it." She asked if he would resume diplomacy: "We have not closed the dialogue window." Will Iran ever "weaponize nuclear materiel?" "We have said once that we do not want the nuclear bomb. We do not accept it. Finished."

As for reports of mass arrests of political protestors and executions, Ahmadinejad told Sawyer that she was asking someone from the wrong branch of government. "These things have to do with the judiciary…These are not political questions." The finest turn of phrase to come out of the One on One was how the Iranian politician addressed the American anchor. Respectable Lady. Perhaps that will catch on.

There was just one more story assigned to a reporter in World News as ABC introduced a new format for its third segment that follows one frequently used by Brian Williams at NBC. Sawyer strung together a couple of tabloid stories and some soft human interest video of Barack Obama at a Boys & Girls Club and a piece of cross-promotion into a two-minute correspondent-free interlude before David Muir's closer. NBC's Williams used the same segment for an anecdote about comedian Will Ferrell and factoids about Avatar's box office performance.

Muir's closer, on UPS package delivery prospects for Christmas presents, allowed Sawyer to close with a joke about everybody on her list expecting a fruitcake. It was not a funny joke. Overall, the thing that was most lacking in Sawyer's first day on the job was a sense of modulation.

Everything seemed too intense. Contrast Sawyer's urgency, even stridency, with Katie Couric's smile--"That is such a wonderful story"--after Dave Price's colorful closer from Rwanda on CBS. Contrast it with Brian Williams' deadpan introduction to Stephanie Gosk's report on NBC about the electric outage that halted Eurostar trains under the Channel Tunnel between London and the continent. "England, where they fought like badgers against incredible odds in World War II," had been halted because the snow was too powdery.

No such modulation from Sawyer…the "historic" healthcare vote in the Senate was "seismic" yet evoked "outrage"…the delays at the airports amounted to "mayhem" and "chaos"…the possibility of economic sanctions against Iran amounted to a "clock ticking"…the death of actress Brittany Murphy raised "troubling questions." It turned out that those questions were not in the slightest bit troubling: "Officials are saying her death appears to be from natural causes but it could take weeks before we get final results."

The anchor's role in the nightly newscast is not at the center stage that Sawyer is accustomed to from her years on Good Morning America. It will clearly take her time to calm down, to get used to the idea that it is as important to be relaxed about a story she is introducing--or sardonic or charmed or dismissive--as it is to be hyped into a lather about it. Most days are neither historic nor seismic nor chaotic nor even troubling--and should not be treated as such.

My favorite reminder that understatement in a nightly news anchor works so much better than intensity comes from ABC's own Robert Krulwich in this radio tribute to the late Peter Jennings. Consider Jennings coolness next to Dan Rather's intensity and you have Brian Williams last night with his "badger" next to Diane Sawyer and her "smoking gun." Listen to Krulwich on This American Life on segment #12 on the audiostream.


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