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.
But the emphasis is on finding and highlighting the most interesting and popular stories, not necessarily the most important, and infusing them with Sawyer’s dramatic approach and delivery and “hot” writing. Developments are “seismic” and “incredible.” There’s medical news that “could put us all at greater risk.” The “Made in America team” is “back in action.” The White House correspondent “took the allegations straight to the White House.” There’s new technology that might mean “20 seconds could save your life.” Tonight, “we have an outrage and an action.” Meanwhile, Sawyer reserves time for more news-lite—the staff calls the segments “Diane pages”—that she and her audience can enjoy: a new ketchup package (“for any of us who have ever squirted ourselves and everyone else around us with these little packages of ketchup, hooray—a small victory!”); the plane that landed with a baby boy born in flight; viewers’ nominations for “the saddest movie ever.”
In the age of social media, she encourages viewers to communicate, and she uses precious airtime to broadcast what they say. When Sawyer travels to cover royal weddings, floods, tornadoes, or political events, they become settings for her. See her touch children; see her stride along Main Street in search of political opinions; see her on the prow of a boat, braving snake-infested rivers; see her comfort the afflicted. Few correspondents’ reports run without being followed by a personal observation from Sawyer. (On the number of people in mortgage trouble: “11 million. What a number!” Or a new vaccine recommendation: “Such a wake-up call.”) It is all a far cry from the days when anchors prided themselves on staying out of the story, and it is delivered with a repertoire of dramatic aids: the breathless voice, the urgent tone, the tilt of the head, the narrowing of the eyes, calculated to make an emotional connection with viewers.
The approach at CBS could not be more different. They’re betting they can win viewers by emphasizing the old-fashioned virtues of reporting and analysis of important news. The Evening News newsroom setting, the minimalist graphics, and the content of the broadcast—all evoke Cronkite. Pelley and his producers focus on the reporters, find spare seconds to jam in more news items, and describe even the most elementary observations as “insights” you don’t get elsewhere.