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After six months as anchor, Diane Sawyer is bringing a sharper edge to ABC's 'World News'
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As 13 people crowd into a small conference room for last Tuesday's 9 a.m. editorial meeting, Sawyer runs the show, offering a string of suggestions for each story idea. Staffers sometimes lean in because she speaks so softly.
On the uproar over McChrystal, whom Sawyer has interviewed, she invokes the audience: "We need to tell you who he is, we really do."
On the rollout of health-care reform: "I wonder if we don't also owe the viewer, given the maze of what passed, something concrete: How many of us have put our 26-year-olds on our insurance? . . . I just feel it's still a blur."
On Illinois requiring state workers to turn 67 before getting retirement benefits: "I wonder if we're ending up with a de facto increase in the retirement age in this country."
The anchor disappears into her office for 15 minutes and reemerges as the Diane Sawyer you see on the screen: perfectly coiffed blond hair, powdered pink face, smart blue blouse. Back at her desk, the talk turns to a profile of Nikki Haley, the Indian American favored to win that night's GOP gubernatorial primary in South Carolina. "Tell me what it means to be Sikh," Sawyer says.
She pores over the Rolling Stone article, highlighting passages with a yellow marker. Then she heads upstairs for a phone interview with the Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, which lasts for 25 minutes even though it will at most yield a sound bite for the newscast.
With a camera rolling in a darkened control room, Sawyer conducts the impromptu interview without notes: "Did he assume any of this was off the record? . . . Do you think he was deliberately taking a risk borne of frustration? . . . Are you saying McChrystal was drunk?"
There is, for Sawyer, a personal aspect to this story: McChrystal groaned about not wanting to open e-mails from special Mideast envoy Richard Holbrooke, who is her former boyfriend. Sawyer recalls Holbrooke as "brave" and "inexhaustible," adding: "I don't know how to explain to people how we can have a personal connection to someone and still be a reporter. They either think we're lying or we're automatons."
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Since taking over the anchor chair, Sawyer has held on to nearly all of Gibson's audience. She has averaged 7.6 million viewers, compared with 8.8 million for Brian Williams's "NBC Nightly News" and 5.8 million for Couric's "CBS Evening News." "I am deeply frustrated by that," Banner says, adding that promotion has been so meager that he meets people who still think Sawyer is co-hosting "Good Morning America." "I more than anything want to get back into first place. It's something she deserves." In the past month, Sawyer has reduced NBC's lead to 710,000 viewers.
After the national hazing that Couric received, Sawyer's status as the second full-time female network anchor seems to be a non-issue. "The joy is that we can be individuals and different, and yes, being a woman is one of those things I am, for sure. And I hope it informs what I think about," the Kentucky native says, twisting the ring on her finger as if the question is an unwelcome distraction.