There’s a story people at ABC News tell about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson were cozily ensconced in the Good Morning America studio when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Being seasoned newsmen both, they sprang into action, covering the tragedy side by side for about 10 minutes until Peter Jennings—stately, stoic, impeccably tailored—settled into his anchor chair.
For the rest of the morning, Sawyer rarely saw the red light of a live camera trained her way. Surrounded by flowers on the cheery Good Morning America set, she waited for her chance to go on. “Diane’s available,” producers said. “She’s standing by.” Nothing.
Charlie Gibson made no direct reference to Sawyer in his public statement about his departure, and a source close to the anchor described him as “livid” that Sawyer is succeeding him.
For two decades, Sawyer has been standing by at ABC, waiting for her chance to run the show. Now, at last, she finally will. It’s not the prize it once was, but it’s hers: anchor of World News, the once towering, now considerably diminished evening broadcast, which, like its competitors on NBC and CBS, keeps soldiering on in the face of looming irrelevance.
If nothing else, Sawyer’s new job carries with it the promise of sweet revenge, a chance to finally win a ratings race against her old rival Katie Couric, who used to beat her every morning as anchor of NBC’s Today and who capped off the winning streak in 2006 by becoming the first ever solo female anchor of a national network newscast. ABC News President David Westin told me he offered Sawyer the job last week, and she called him at seven Tuesday evening and said, “It’s a go.”
How much of a “go” it is for ABC remains to be seen. Good Morning America is the only news program that makes serious money for the network, and Sawyer’s anchoring is pretty much the only thing keeping it from drifting off into deep space. Come January, she’ll leave behind three talented but utterly chemistry-free co-hosts to hold down the lucrative broadcast for the network, owned by Disney, which is not exactly a charitable enterprise. Sawyer’s new gig at World News, by contrast, may be the most prestigious seat in the house, but on days when there hasn’t been a national triumph or tragedy, it’s really just 22 minutes of old news, watched by 7 million old people—and hardly a cash cow.
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For his part, Gibson left as he came: humbly and with lots of admirers. When he took the reins in 2006, after the ill-fated pairing of youngsters Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas fell apart six months after it began, he told me he got the job by happenstance. “I was the guy still there by the candy machine,” he said (with no mention of the gal standing there next to him).
Gibson didn’t do interviews this time, but said in a statement that his “heart is full of gratitude.” Although they worked closely for more than a decade, Gibson makes no direct reference to Sawyer in the statement, and a source close to the departing anchor described him as “livid” that she’s succeeding him. An ABC executive called this “nonsense,” and Westin said he told Gibson from their earliest conversations about his retirement that Sawyer would be his replacement.
No other anchors were even considered for the job. Westin said it’s too early to predict how Sawyer’s presence will change the show, but that after his abortive earlier effort to bring in a younger pair of anchors, he’s given up trying to reinvent the evening newscast. He praised Sawyer’s long career, highlighting her interviews with all the presidents since George H.W. Bush and her documentaries on the American underclass.
“She has paid her dues and then some,” Westin said, “and it seemed that she’d waited her turn and this was the right time for her, if Charlie was to step down.” Which he did, despite Westin’s (and everyone else’s) best efforts to stop him.
It may not be the unequivocal endorsement Sawyer envisioned for her final ascent, but there is at least the comfort that justice has been done. After all her years as a good soldier for ABC, she deserves this. The broadcaster, a former beauty queen and Nixon communications aide who is married to director Mike Nichols, got her start on television in the 1980s at CBS. She began where women did at the time, as a blond, silky, self-possessed presence on the morning show, then graduated to a plum job as a correspondent for top-rated news magazine 60 Minutes. After a few years there, she moved over to ABC to host the evening news magazine Primetime Live. Then it was back to the chipper pre-work hours as host of Good Morning America. From morning to night, night to morning, she’s been circling the 6:30 p.m. time slot for 30 years, even as the show itself slipped further down the drain.
Sawyer—who almost never gives interviews—was mum as usual on the day of her coronation, but Couric offered a tepid welcome. “Diane is one of the hardest-working people I know,” she said through her publicist, “and this new assignment is the latest achievement in an already accomplished and illustrious career. And as I did, I’m sure she’ll quickly find that she doesn’t miss that early morning alarm clock.”
As I did. It was the first volley in the revival of TV news’ most delicious rivalry. Couric, who is gamely hanging on as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, is all smiles and warmth and live colonoscopies to Sawyer’s dignified cool. The CBS anchor, 52, may have paved the way for the ABC anchor, 63, but Sawyer inherits a broadcast that typically draws a million more viewers a night than Couric’s. The CBS Evening News, meanwhile, is plagued by one major disadvantage that has nothing to do with the host herself—a pathetically weak affiliate group—but has otherwise been going strong in the wake of Couric’s blockbuster election coverage.
Brian Williams’ NBC Nightly News is the most-watched of the three and is likely to remain so, but if Sawyer can hold on to most of Gibson’s viewers, it will be a career triumph. If she sinks beneath CBS, it will be a crushing defeat. Either way, it’s one reason to watch the evening news next year.
Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.