Sawyer Gets It Right (Finally)

Yesterday, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Diane Sawyer went above and beyond to set the record straight about the nature of Gov. Howard Dean’s now-notorious post-Iowa caucus address.

Opening her segment, “It’s a kind of mea culpa, and I’m as guilty as anybody else,” Sawyer went on to explain that Dean had raised the volume of his voice during his speech in order to be heard over the din of his supporters (a fact that many of the initial accounts of Dean’s speech noted, but that most subsequent stories left out). Sawyer continued by pointing out that Dean had been speaking into a microphone that isolated his voice and blocked out the background noise of the crowd, demonstrating the effect herself with a similar mic.

Sawyer did the legwork so many reporters failed to do, collecting several tapes of Dean’s address that included the noise of the crowd. She played one, and summarized what it showed: “[L]isten to how it was in the room. The so-called scream couldn’t really be heard at all.”

Sawyer then went the extra step and asked each of the major news networks for comment about their treatment of Dean’s speech (which, Sawyer notes, the networks played nearly 700 times in the days immediately after the Iowa caucuses). Here’s how she summarized their comments:

NBC was the only [network] that said the speech was certainly the strangest event of the 2004 campaign. The rarest thing in politics, an unscripted moment. Did it get too much air time? Could be, but not if news continues to be defined as the unusual or unexpected. Everybody else said hmm. …

The president of CBS said, individually, we may feel okay about our network, but the cumulative effect for viewers with 24-hour cable coverage is, it, we, it may have been overplayed. And, in fact, a disservice to Dean and the viewers. All of us together. The head of ABC said, I think among all of us together, it was out of proportion. It’s always a danger. We use good video too much in television. And the head of CNN said, we’ve all been wrestling with this. If we had to do it over again, we’d probably pull ourselves back. The head of FOX News, the head of the news division, he said, I frankly thought it got overplayed a bit, and the public clearly thought that too, and kept him alive for another round.

We’re a little late tossing a laurel to Sawyer — but, then, she was a little late in correcting herself and the networks. For all that, though, her work was impressive; an enterprising example of a diligent reporter tracking down the truth, instead of accepting what had become conventional wisdom, reverberating endlessly around the campaign coverage echo chamber.

Keep it up Diane and we just might put you on our “must-hire” list.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.