By Tom Shales
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; C01
Ideally, the gorgeousness of Diane Sawyer should not be a factor in assessing her performance as anchor of ABC's nightly news, which she now is. But television, though it's sometimes forgotten, remains a visual medium, and appearance indeed counts. Besides, the producers of "World News With Diane Sawyer" are so in love with their leading lady's looks that they didn't even bother to build a new set for her to sit on.
Even Cleopatra needed a barge -- a setting, a physical showcase. From the first moments of Sawyer's debut on Monday evening, however, the revamped newscast concentrated claustrophobically on a tight shot of Sawyer with very little else visible around her -- just that horn-of-plenty box over her shoulder where news footage or reporters pop up.
The goal was apparently intimacy, with Sawyer and some of the correspondents on the program making conscious attempts to address the viewer as a single "you" -- as in Sawyer's introductory "It is so good to be here with you tonight" -- and such later viewer-directed remarks as "You have been sending in questions all day" about health care. Correspondent Jonathan Karl began a tour of the weighty health-care legislation with: "Inside the bill you'll find . . . "
It's an old trick that isn't very becoming on a truly serious newscast, but it's also a small detail rather than a major thematic component.
ABC has been discreet rather than bombastic in unveiling Sawyer's show -- no avalanche of promos or publicity blizzard -- and she makes her debut during a time of year traditionally underpopulated with viewers. This gives the network time and opportunity to tune up the broadcast and to get the proverbial bugs out. Once it does, it stands a very good chance of having the best-anchored newscast on television, anywhere.
But opening-night jitters and the obsession with keeping Sawyer front, center and everywhere else (they might think of retitling the program "Face Time With Diane Sawyer") tended to hobble and mute the first edition. When Sawyer was trying to billboard an upcoming news story about the death of actress Brittany Murphy, pictures of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came on instead. That jarred Sawyer and she uncharacteristically stumbled over some of her words.
Sawyer's sit-down with Ahmadinejad was the night's big coup, ostensibly anyway, and so about 14 minutes into the newscast, the news stopped casting so Sawyer could show off her considerable interviewing prowess, launching a full-court press on the Iranian president. "These are the headlines for our conversation," she said as the four-minute segment began, a way of pre-digesting the news for impatient viewers -- and most commercial television is produced by people who think we are all very, very impatient all the time.
She questioned the evasive Ahmadinejad, who still squints so severely that he often appears to be blind, about his country's alleged testing of a "neutron initiator," a device needed in the construction of nuclear weapons, but Ahmadinejad dismissed documents pertaining to the device as part of "a repetitive and tasteless joke." Referring to Sawyer once as a "respectable lady," Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran has more freedom "than in America" when asked about the reported jailing or executing of free-speech protesters.
It was solid reportage by Sawyer, if not the kind of thing likely to precipitate dozens of headlines or to have other newscasters kicking themselves in jealous disgruntlement.
Sawyer's lead story, appropriately, was voting on the health-care bill and last-minute arm-twisting; over on "CBS Evening News," Katie Couric mistakenly led with holiday air traffic and put health care in the No. 2 slot, perhaps on the grounds that viewers are tired of the story. Maybe they are, but it's still the biggest news in town, and after a weekend inundated with weather stories, air traffic didn't merit the lead-off position.
George Stephanopoulos was brought onto Sawyer's inaugural newscast -- the only moment, really, when there did appear to be a set -- ostensibly to take advantage of his political expertise, though now that he is also co-anchor of "Good Morning America" (Sawyer's old job -- small world!), that status has actually been diminished; he is a little less like Tim Russert and a little more like Matt Lauer. Stephanopoulos looked sleepy but made a worthwhile contribution, illuminating the political aspects of the health-care mess. And he has, admittedly, greatly enhanced the gravitas of "GMA's" first hour, when serious news is featured and most of the chefs and rock stars are held at bay.
Gracious to a fault -- as gracious as Grace Kelly, Meryl Streep or Cary Grant -- Sawyer issued a warm and tender shout-out to Charles Gibson, who vacated the anchor chair on Friday, calling the job "a labor of love." Gibson also made reference to "my pal Diane Sawyer," perhaps partly to discourage rumors of a feud between the two. Sawyer is aware of catty remarks Gibson has made about her, an insider says, but when together, the two are always friendly and sociable. Gibson is gone, so it doesn't matter now anyway.
Footage of Brian Ross, the great investigative reporter, materialized at the wrong time in the second half of the broadcast, with Sawyer hastily explaining to viewers that they'd just seen a glimpse of a Ross report scheduled for Tuesday night. At 6:56 it was time for "and finally tonight" and a closing story about the pre-Christmas package delivery rush, followed by Sawyer's friendly adieu to Gibson and to those who'd tuned in for her premiere.
Nothing in the program threatened in any way Sawyer's reputation as a network wonder woman. She called upon her years of experience and her ineffable charm not only to report the news, but to put it over with panache. Eventually, maybe the camera will pull back a bit and give her, and viewers, some breathing room, trusting Sawyer to hold us captive without seeming to sit in our veritable laps.