Diane Sawyer, On the Ground And in High Gear

The "Good Morning America" anchor in the streets of Iran recently and in Syria, below, with President Bashar al-Assad. (Abc Photos)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

Eight days ago, amid shouts of "Death to America!," Diane Sawyer waded into a huge demonstration in Tehran and asked a group of boys, "Do you not like me?" They thought for a moment and switched to "Death to George Bush!"

When Sawyer finished interviewing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about his country's role in Iraq, he said: "Those were combative questions. Women should not be asking tough questions about war, but about love and family and culture."

It was not your typical morning-show fare, but Sawyer is not having a typical season. Following her earlier forays to Syria and North Korea, along with a prime-time special on poverty, the "Good Morning America" co-host seems to be kicking into higher gear.

"I was trying to go to the places I think are one-dimensional to a lot of us, and trying to make them three-dimensional," Sawyer says. "It's something I love to do: not only get a sense of the politics but of the people. It felt a little bit like my own personal endurance course."

Figuring out her career takes endurance as well. Just as industry insiders are wondering whether she is ready to abandon the predawn grind, Sawyer embarks on a one-woman diplomatic mission that has the business buzzing.

"I think she's really energized," says Charles Gibson, her morning co-host until he took over ABC's "World News" in May. The Ahmadinejad interview "showed Diane off at her best, because she was very persistent with him." During the years he sat next to her, Gibson says, "three or four times a week, I'd think to myself, where did that question come from? She taught me a lot about the business of interviewing."

Sawyer's foreign adventures are a reminder that she can glide from geopolitics to pickles -- she had a grand time sampling the wares at a Syrian restaurant -- as well as chat up the usual celebrities.

Sawyer says she feels freer to hop on airplanes now that her new on-air group -- Robin Roberts, Chris Cuomo and Sam Champion -- has settled in. NBC's new "Today" duo of Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer leads "GMA" this season, averaging 5.7 million viewers to the latter's 4.9 million, although ABC boasted of a rare win with the Iran visit last Monday.

Foreign travel is nothing new for her, Sawyer notes, recalling a "60 Minutes" visit to Iran two decades ago and a pre-Gulf War sit-down with Saddam Hussein. But how often, in the space of one week, as happened this month, does a journalist sit down with the leaders of two countries with whom U.S. officials are barely communicating?

Senior Executive Producer Jim Murphy, who made both trips, says they landed in each country Saturday night and went all-out until it was Monday morning in New York. "We would spend hours and hours every day out shooting and talking to people, and go into situations others would find dicey," he says.

Asked about criticism that she was giving America's enemies a platform, Sawyer says: "We may violently disagree with them, but first we must try to understand the way they see the world if we can."

Ahmadinejad ducked or finessed Sawyer's questions about the Bush administration's claims that Iran is supplying deadly weapons to Iraqi insurgents. "It was interesting to watch him retreat from his most incendiary statements," she says. "He would not repeat them."

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