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After six months as anchor, Diane Sawyer is bringing a sharper edge to ABC's 'World News'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010; C01

NEW YORK

It is not yet 9 a.m. and Diane Sawyer is shaking her head in amazement.

"Unbelievable," she says, having woken up to the news that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had denigrated President Obama's team in a Rolling Stone piece. "Oh, my gosh, it had to have been off the record. . . . What do you do if you're the Obama White House?. . . . This is not the general we knew."

This is the non-glamorous side of Sawyer, who at the moment -- with her untamed hair, pale skin, black-rimmed glasses and plain white shirt -- looks like a 64-year-old housewife in need of a cup of coffee. She sits in a row of eight desks at ABC's Columbus Avenue newsroom, conducting a rolling conversation with her staff, peppering them with endless questions about the stories taking shape.

In six months as anchor of "World News," the longtime morning star hasn't changed the newscast's second-place status, but she has brought a sharper edge to the aging format. By pushing her reporters to brandish documents on the air and investigate e-mail questions from viewers, by complaining about official intransigence, she is forging what a top ABC executive calls an "advocacy" program.

"We've done quite a bit of making room for the extra thought -- allowing ourselves to tell you the one thing we found fascinating," Sawyer says. "It's become a real conversation we're having with you, that we would have if we were sitting in your living room. I think it gives us some freedom to be ourselves."

Sawyer's exacting standards don't end with the staff. She says she asks herself about each broadcast: "Is it as alive as it could be? Are you conveying your own sense of excitement and not falling into formulas?"

Jon Banner, the executive producer, calls Sawyer "the most curious person I've been around in a long time. She is constantly pushing us to ask the next question."

To avoid the overheated hoopla that surrounded Katie Couric's CBS debut in 2006, Sawyer succeeded Charlie Gibson in low-key fashion four days before Christmas, and her changes to the newscast have been slow and subtle. She has brief, unscripted exchanges with her reporters, and "World News" often shows them at their desks or interviewing people on the phone, rather than in traditional stand-ups.

"Jon Karl sitting in front of a computer saying, 'But it's right here on Page 4,078,' tells you many things," says Sawyer, recalling the reporter citing a provision of the health-care legislation. "It's a way of showing that what we're doing is not mysterious."

Sitting up stiffly, Sawyer explains: "I know our correspondents have long felt the formality of what we do -- 'This is what it is, back to you, thank you, turn' -- doesn't allow us to question things the way people at home question them."

Karl says Sawyer gives him constant feedback and urged him, on the health bill, to "dive into that thing and show us where it is and what you have found. . . . She has helped make me a better reporter. She has great antennae for questions that cut to the chase."

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

Her baptism of fire came in January when she was reporting in Afghanistan and had to make a 30-hour journey to Haiti to cover the devastating earthquake there. She says her seven trips as anchor have energized her, that she needs to be at the scene of a story "and know what it smells like."

When Sawyer went to Louisiana after the gulf oil spill, "I was so moved by the valor of these fishermen and their families and how much they wanted to go out and protect their land." She says her husband, director Mike Nichols, jokingly calls her "Wilderness Heroine," because she'd "pack a little bag and go off to a jungle in the Amazon."

The anchor keeps inviting viewers to send e-mail queries about the spill and reads the answers her staff has gotten -- some of them from BP -- on the air. In regular updates, she has chided officials for being unable to say "how much coastline has been hit by oil."

Sawyer now gets to sleep until 7 a.m., her old starting time during 11 years at "GMA," but doesn't turn in until 1 or 2 a.m. Nearly everyone has a story about her stamina.

In April, having learned of a West Virginia mine collapse shortly before the evening news, Sawyer and correspondent David Muir flew there on a charter, landing just before midnight. "So which end of the county are you going to take?" Sawyer asked Muir, who recalls meeting up with her again just before her 7 a.m. live shot for "GMA." They continued working throughout the day, and when "World News" came on, Muir says, "a lot of people didn't realize that this was an anchorwoman who hadn't slept."

Sawyer, who once worked in Washington -- as a White House press aide for Richard Nixon -- has been using her trips to the capital to get better acquainted with the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Obama adviser David Axelrod.

Despite her superstar status at ABC and CBS, Sawyer admits she feels the extra weight of the anchor mantle. In her eyes, she is carrying on the tradition of Peter Jennings and Gibson, of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. When she comes on the air after a presidential speech, "it's the network signaling to you that this moment matters."

* * *

Sawyer serves as coach, cheerleader and air traffic controller, trying to clear the runway for maximum information traffic. In the conference room at 2:40, she says she will talk to George Stephanopoulos about McChrystal "and then turn to Martha [Raddatz], who knows him so well, and say tell us more."

Sawyer still wants answers on the oil spill: "Did anything pan out on the oxygen deprivation of the ocean?"

But she sounds equally fascinated by a health research group threatening to sue McDonald's for luring kids with Happy Meal toys. "If you put a McDonald's wrapper on Mom's cheeseburger, they think it's better?" Sawyer looks at the script: "I wonder if we have to move up the saturated fat and calories."

Sawyer's whispery, more emotional delivery isn't everyone's cup of tea -- "There's a lady-of-the-manor air about her," a USA Today critic wrote -- but it is distinctive. "She doesn't have the voice of God in her," Banner says, casting it as an asset.

Her storytelling ability, honed as a "60 Minutes" correspondent, is equally valuable. She jogs upstairs to look at video for a story about the 8-year-old son of the late professor Randy Pausch, asking Congress to boost funding for pancreatic cancer research. Sawyer, who once did an hour-long special on Pausch and clearly admires him, asks the producer for more evocative pictures of his children. Ducking into a sound booth, she changes the script on the fly as she records it.

Sawyer is quickly pulled into a meeting with her medical unit, where she methodically challenges each story pitch: "Who are you considering elderly for these purposes?" "What's the average length of a doctor's appointment, 11 minutes or so?" "I love that, but we have to figure out how to do it . . . so it's not 'GMA.' "

With two hours till airtime, Sawyer looks at White House correspondent Jake Tapper's script on McChrystal, blue pen in hand. "Rather than have Jake say he bad-mouthed Obama, include the text so people can decide how bad it is," she tells Banner.

At 6:30, Sawyer leads the broadcast with the McChrystal saga: "Good evening. There was a giant explosion heard around the world today, and it had nothing to do with weapons, everything to do with words." The interview with Rolling Stone's Hastings gets two sentences; the rest is posted online as part of Sawyer's "Conversation" series. Sawyer covers the oil spill, the Nikki Haley race and the McDonald's flap and ends with the legacy of Randy Pausch. "A singular man and his extraordinary son," she says before signing off.

Sawyer is attached to her favorite blips of information, tucking them away in a file. She recalls Louisiana fishermen telling her that shrimp have "these little tails, the things you leave on the plate, that propel them away from the oil. It moved me very much, their relationship to these little creatures we think of as brainless."

She has tried in vain to get this on the air and vows to succeed one day. "Until then," Sawyer says, glancing at the staff outside her office, "I will be roundly mocked and ridiculed."

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