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.
In Pelley, CBS has probably the most well-qualified and proven television journalist ever to ascend to the anchor job; he has filed breaking news pieces from around the nation and the world, covered the White House, and compiled an impressive body of work for 60 Minutes. His no-nonsense (some would say stiff) style is well matched to the style of the program. The closest he comes to hyperbole is when he refers to CBS News resources “around the world” (the reality is that CBS, like the other networks, has drastically cut back its foreign coverage resources, dropping most of its correspondents, producers, crews, and bureaus overseas) and touts added information provided by “our research department” (which amounts to three full-time employees). He is less likely to comment on a correspondent’s report than to be found on camera as the report ends, gazing thoughtfully at the monitor, his eyeglasses and his chin in his hand.
Pelley and his producers spend more time on foreign news, Washington news, and politics—the traditional fare of the network evening news broadcast. They air pieces aimed at providing background and perspective. Warm and fuzzy stories are hard to find. So are any signs of feeling—even a smile—from the anchor. While ABC’s broadcast seems finely tuned to audience research and the techniques that have built ratings on local newscasts around the nation (go hard on weather stories; never pass up a story featuring animals), CBS seems to seek merit badges for lofty intentions. Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News, is supremely confident: “I don’t look at the research. I don’t believe in it. You do what you do well. You cover what you think is important or interesting. It’s news. It’s journalism.”