In a hectic six weeks, Sawyer has jetted to Copenhagen and Washington, Kabul and Port-au-Prince. She has sat down for One on One interviews with three presidents--Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama--and a four-star general, Stanley McChrystal. Ahmadinejad even conferred a new nickname on the new anchor Respectable Lady.
Her overnight pivot from a field report on Hellfire missile airstrikes from USAF Predator drones along the Afghan-Pakistan border to the corpse-strewn streets of Haiti's capital must have been the most arduous--and unusual--work commute in the history of big foot journalism. Contrast this with her deskbound predecessor Charles Gibson, who logged just a handful of reports from a foreign dateline (17 min v Katie Couric's 91 on CBS, Brian Williams' 78 on NBC) during his 42 months on the job. Sawyer (24 min) surpassed Gibson's total in just her first six weeks.
As committed as Sawyer herself is to traveling far afield to where the action is, her newscast as a whole does not share a global outlook. Take the Haiti story. Through the end of January, ABC spent less time than the other two newscasts both on the earthquake and its aftermath (85 min v NBC 126, CBS 111) and on the sidebar controversy surrounding efforts to take Haitian children out of the country for adoption (1 min v NBC 21, CBS 8).
Instead, Sawyer is developing her anchor desk as a news hub. Of the ten most heavily-used correspondents in her first six weeks on the job, five are based at ABC's New York bureau: David Muir (#1, 46 min), Brian Ross (#3, 32 min), Kate Snow (#4, 26 min), Dan Harris (#5, 25 min) and Richard Besser (#10, 15 min). The focus on New York has meant that ABC used its DC bureau (92 min v CBS 147, NBC 131) less than the other two newscasts. By contrast, under Gibson's tenure, five of the top ten most heavily used correspondents were based in Washington DC. Under Sawyer, Jake Tapper (#2, 36 min), Martha Raddatz (#6, 20 min) and Jonathan Karl (#9, 18 min) were the three to survive the cut.
Over the six weeks, ABC has spent less time on basic hard news reporting than its two rivals (269 min v NBC 395, CBS 345), concentrating instead on a mixture of features, interviews and softer human interest and celebrity stories (254 min v CBS 237, NBC 191), a mix which reveals Sawyer's roots on Good Morning America.
Having her favorite correspondents close at hand in New York City offers the advantage of creating the impression of a hands-on anchor. Routinely, Sawyer debriefs her reporter with a question at the anchor desk to conclude a story. It has the disadvantage that the reporter is not in the field newsgathering. As a consequence, ABC is developing a new visual style for contacting its sources, at once cutting edge and hi-tech--and bare bones and low rent. Check out Brian Ross reporting on bureaucrats' junkets or David Muir on a consumer boycott of credit cards or Kate Snow on female soldiers reprimanded for getting pregnant or Chris Cuomo on firearms laws for buying grenade launchers and you will see this new style of remote reporting. The visuals viewers see consist of reporters working the telephone; interviewing sources via speakerphone and Skype; quoting from e-mails and chatrooms and social networking sites; performing Google searches and showing Website screen grabs.
Aside from these innovations in content, personnel and newsgathering, the most startling thing about Sawyer's arrival is her unique vocal style. Her audience can hear it in a trio of tics she uses when debriefing her cadre of correspondents.
First, the story slug: in her head, Sawyer has a shorthand for the most dramatic element of a story. It may be a turn of phrase a reporter used, or a singular anecdotal element, or a dramatic turning point. Often it is a sentence fragment--the slug that encapsulates the item in old-fashioned newspaper parlance. She routinely uses her slug to turn attention back to the anchor desk after the videotape has finished running. Some examples: "Sign of the times, it came in a tweet"--to Jeffrey Kofman after a court ruling in Rio de Janeiro…"So close to the sea"--to Lisa Stark after a jetliner just missed crashing into he Caribbean…"A terrible loss" to Kate Snow on the assassination of seven CIA spies…"A lemon instead of a donkey" to John Berman on the Democratic Party's declining reputation.
Second, she disdains verbs. Sawyer's signature acknowledgement of a reporter's work is "our thanks to you," eliding the "we give our…" That is just the most frequent verbless figure of speech she uses. "How many assassination attempts [have you survived]?" she asks Hamid Karzai. "Finally tonight, [there are] big smiles in the Big Easy. New Orleans [has] good reason to cheer," she celebrated, as the Saints reached the Super Bowl. "Their faces [are] out of a Dickens novel. Many [are] without shoes and socks," she described the urchins of Kabul.
Here is a freeform paragraph from the airport in Port-au-Prince: "At one point, the FAA stopped all incoming flights, for an airport that used to have just a couple, more than 120 this morning alone, guided in by a makeshift air traffic control, a couple of guys with a radio, the real control tower crashed. We are told some 50 tons of aid are stuck outside Port-au-Prince, in holding patterns in the sky. As the world came in, the Chinese first to arrive, planting their flag, early in the morning. The US Air Force sent C-130s. Those have unloaded, taken off to get additional support, so many of them American volunteers, a search-and-rescue team went straight to the UN headquarters, where the death toll of UN workers stands at 22, 160 still missing." Insert verbs where you see fit.
Third, her tone of voice. Sawyer conveys an extra layer of meaning through the variety of emphases she puts on words. She can stress as many as three or four words in a single sentence. She imparts astonishment, incredulity, outrage, bemusement--all by the singsong rise and fall of her pitch and the syncopation of her emphasis. Combined with the lack of verbs, Sawyer's telegramatic vocal style conveys an intense headline urgency that contrasts diametrically with that of Brian Williams on NBC. Williams uses courtly, sardonic, ornate circumlocution. Sawyer is all rush and stress and sharp edges. Williams is Mel Torme. Sawyer is Miles Davis.
Viewers have not seen such a contrast in vocal styles from their nightly anchors since Peter Jennings was in competition with Dan Rather. Interestingly, the Ratheresque Sawyer succeeded Rather as a 60 Minutes correspondent in the early 1980s.
Nowhere is Sawyer's use of emphasis in her vocal delivery as pronounced as in her questioning style. Routinely questions are structured, grammatically, as declarative statements, rendered as an interrogative by a closing upturn in her pitch. "They have a ritual down on Wall Street you were telling me about," was a statement turned into a question of Betsy Stark. "They were prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. They were released," she stated-cum-questioned Brian Ross. "They are not so covert. They are not so hidden," she proposed to Martha Raddatz about al-Qaeda's bases in Yemen. "But the critics from your own party say you have become the Dick Cheney of the President's White House," she declared-then-inquired of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Together all of these verbal tics are questions of style, merely, and say nothing about the quality of Sawyer's journalism or what approach she prefers. For viewers, they happen so frequently that they would make a fun drinking game--if one happened to want to start hitting the Jagermeister as early as 6:30 in the evening. As well as downing a shot every time a sentence fragment is used to summarize a story...or a verb is missed...or a statement is intoned as a question, we can add the phrases as we know...as we said...and as always...and of course.
A harmless technique Sawyer has for reassuring her audience that she is totally au courant with the talk of the day is to assume that whatever she happens to have on her mind is universally fascinating. "The question everyone is asking," she exaggerates to Brian Ross…the moment in the State of the Union speech "that had everybody talking," she embellished to Terry Moran. More serious, is the sloppy exaggeration Sawyer can resort to when she teases an item to be aired later in the newscast. Sometimes her teases are as misleading as those on the 11pm local news, far below the accuracy expected on a network newscast.
She promised a report from Ron Claiborne on "why even the President might not have the power to remove this billboard." Claiborne was categorical that the President does possess such power. She previewed David Wright's report about a trend whereby wives are in the workforce and college educated thus: "Would Marilyn Monroe believe men now looking to marry the millionaires?" Wright did not mention a single millionairess. "What happens to a small child's body eight days without food and water?" she asked. David Muir's report from Haiti made no reference to such an ordeal. "Revelations about the milk that may be on your table," she promised, yet when Brian Ross reported, he told us only about the dairy cows on the farm, nothing about the milk itself.
So, finally, what is the journalistic agenda that undergirds Sawyer's style? What do these choices and tics add up to? Her drive to be at the center of the action…the intensity of her delivery and her personal interaction…her impatience with the abstractions of public policy…her preference for the dramatic moment and the telling anecdote. For Sawyer, journalism seems to have a higher calling than the illumination public policy. Rather than mere civil society, she seems more interested in human nature itself.
Consider her praise for Martha Raddatz' profile of Tim Karcher, a legless combat veteran: "He teaches us all about strength and resilience."
She recounted a stillbirth after a caesarian operation on a dead pregnant woman that resulted in both mother and baby being revived: "In one moment so much of the fragility and joy of life."
An airline passenger, stranded overnight, was cared for by a stranger: "Sometimes in the middle of worry and trouble there is a shining example of ordinary kindness."
"Her story gave us a moment of family and humanity during the grinding political campaign of 2008," she declared in her obituary for Joe Biden's mother.
"We have learned about search and rescue missions that have told us so much about what people do under stress, what people do in the crucible, that have taught us about what we might do and what lessons we might have learned," was her take-home from the rubble of the Hotel Montana in Haiti.
Comparing Kabul with Port-au-Prince she found "children whose smiles said, on two sides of the planet, there are so many hopeful faces, certain that, some day maybe, the world will change."
At last, the network nightly newscasts have hired an anchor whose journalistic ethos contradicts the conservative mantra that the MainStreamMedia are irredeemably tied to a liberal political agenda. For Diane, what journalism can do uniquely is to elucidate the true moral core of humanity. By bearing witness to how individuals behave in extremis, her journalism seeks to reveal what we humans are made of, irrespective of age or station, background or nationality. Her focus is not on changing society; her vision does not belong to the progressive agenda. Imparting eternal moral lessons is the root of Sawyer's journalism.
UPDATE: check out Mervin Block on Sawyer's mangled scriptwriting.
Andrew, very thorough piece about Sawyer's style and the content in the newscast. Thank you very much.
Indeed thoughtful. I never thought of Brian as Mel Torme before, but you may be on to something. As for Lady Di, her cadence also recalls the Beat poets, no?
UPDATE: here are two more reviews of Sawyer's style. Mary McNamara at Los Angeles Times notes her patrician condescension, calling Sawyer's emphasis on feeling over substance "emo-journalism." Jeff Simon at Buffalo News has a similar reaction: "No one does empathy like Diane Sawyer."
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