Actually, the groupthink started at the beginning of television news, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Its earliest practitioners admired serious newspapers and radio news, and their corporate leaders were under pressure from Congress to broadcast “in the public interest.” So they wanted the evening newscasts (along with documentaries and political convention and election coverage) produced by their news departments to be demonstrations of sober intent, as opposed to the comedies and variety hours produced by the entertainment departments. (Reuven Frank, the innovator responsible for the Huntley-Brinkley Report and later the president of NBC News, used to say, “A lot of newspapers have comics sections. The networks are comics with newspaper sections.”) As long as the three networks operated in a universe of enormous audiences and limited competition, they could afford to feed viewers the spinach of “important” news. If it all looked the same, it didn’t matter. The networks were delivering the news—generally the same stories in the same order, giving them similar weight.
But the news has changed. now it’s a rare night when all three networks cover the same stories. As Williams put it, “It’s audibles. It’s electives. It’s some brands trying to be different. Distinguish themselves. Stand out.”
It is still true that the anchors are, for most viewers, what makes one program stand out from another, perhaps more than ever. “These newscasts are almost entirely a function of the anchors,” Sherwood says. “And it’s misplaced to over-interpret the changes that producers are making.”
Beyond their personalities, the anchors impose their news sensibilities on the programs; it’s not by accident that they are called managing editors. Good producers—and good news division presidents—make sure the story content, the presentation, and the overall style of the program match the anchor’s sensibilities. It’s difficult to imagine Sawyer fronting the current CBS broadcast, or Pelley anchoring on ABC.
No one is trying harder to stand out than Sawyer and ABC World News, and it’s more than the drive to find the “insurgent lead.” Many nights, traditional news stories are treated as quickly as possible to make more time for warm and fuzzy features, health and consumer stories, and “news you can use”—the kinds of content you used to find mostly on the magazine programs and morning shows. Which is, of course, where Sawyer has spent most of her professional life.
Sometimes, that experience has honed an instinct that results in great work. Her continuing “Made in America” series, about how more Americans could have jobs if more American-made products were bought, has turned a spotlight on a major aspect of the nation’s unemployment crisis. Putting aside some examples of outrageously contrived video, these pieces have dramatically illustrated the problem and gone on to suggest solutions. That’s rare in television news. Apart from that series, Sawyer encourages investigative work, pursuing the “bad guys,” seeking unrehearsed answers and holding leaders responsible for their actions—whether it’s the Justice Department spending $16 a muffin at its conferences or major banks charging hefty new fees. That kind of “on-your-side” journalism is all too rare (Sherwood says Sawyer picks stories that “empower people to change their lives”). Sawyer also succeeds with a useful technique for providing background and analysis on complicated stories: She frames the questions she wants answered, and has correspondents answer them. And when an indisputably big story breaks, Sawyer and her correspondents provide coverage that’s as good as anyone’s.