For her first official broadcast as the anchor of ABC’s World News on Monday, Diane Sawyer, the most glamorous woman in network television, opted to wear… a hoodie.
This was hours before her actual TV debut; Sawyer was sitting before a Webcam for some newfangled online broadcast called The Conversation with Diane Sawyer, the Web counterpart to World News. The anchor, in plastic-frame reading glasses, her hair loose and thoroughly un-shellacked, spent a few casual minutes chatting with ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl about the state of the health-care bill.
Here was a veteran of the Nixon White House, a former Southern beauty queen, the velvet-voiced wife of no less distinguished a figure than Mike Nichols, with closets full of couture in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue—and she was talking about Senate voting practices in what appeared to be a well-tailored Snuggie. At a time when the Eastern seaboard is blanketed in snow, she looked cozy but not at all unfeminine, almost as if she took a break from darning socks to explain the finer points of cloture.
And there was no backlash, no urgent debate about whether Sawyer possesses sufficient gravitas to take over the mantle of such a titan as Peter Jennings, with his wardrobe of slick Brioni suits. Maybe Sawyer’s already proved herself. Maybe the evening news as an institution has dwindled so much that no one cares enough to raise hell. Either way, by the warped gender standards of TV news, the lack of furor generated by a lady anchor in loungewear is itself a milestone.
“For a long time, gravitas meant that if you were a woman you had to be unattractive,” says Sally Quinn, the first-ever female network anchor. “If you were ugly and fat you had gravitas, but if you were a babe, you didn’t have gravitas, no matter how smart you were. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
• Rebecca Dana: The ABCs of Diane’s DealBack in 2006, when Katie Couric became the first solo female network anchor of the CBS Evening News, the discussion of her ascension was subsumed by questions of her worthiness to sit in a chair once occupied by the great Walter Cronkite. Before Couric’s debut, the conversation focused on her legs and her stilettos. After, critics zeroed in on her hairstyle and her mascara.
ABC has managed to avoid such overtly sexist coverage, largely by treating Sawyer’s promotion as just another minor personnel shift. CBS publicly wooed Couric, stole her from NBC for a reported five-year, $75 million contract, and spent an additional $10 million on a promotional campaign that featured, among many other advertisements, a giant blowup poster of the anchor’s head affixed to the front grille of every single New York City bus for weeks leading up to her debut.
By contrast, Sawyer took over with almost no promotional campaign, four days before Christmas, on the shortest day of the year. She’d been a frequent guest host of World News for years, so it came as no shock to regular viewers to see her in the anchor chair. “No ‘hoopla’ as Diane Sawyer takes over ABC World News” was a typical headline.
The closest ABC got to any of the fanfare of Couric’s 2006 ticker-tape parade was a modest gathering of Good Morning America staff on Dec. 11, Sawyer’s last day as co-anchor of that show. The event featured a buffet of seasoned nuts (sesame-crusted, honey-glazed) and an array of flavored potato chips with corresponding bowls of dip. At some point, everyone gathered ’round while Sawyer, clad all in black and wearing a dangerous-looking pair of gem-encrusted black stilettos, gave a short speech.
To some degree, Sawyer has Couric to thank for the lack of hoopla that’s surrounded her move, for paving the way and drawing so much fire while doing so that everyone’s guns seem empty now.
Sawyer, of course, has always had her own style, a demeanor in many ways opposite Couric’s. In qualifications, the two are quite similar, coming from morning shows but with ample experience covering serious news as well. But personality-wise, they are night and day, Sawyer all lunar cool to Couric’s sunny warmth. Both have a signature facial expression: Sawyer’s is squinting incredulity, which she employed to stare down Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an exclusive interview Monday night. Couric’s is exaggerated naïveté, so mercilessly effective in her big interviews last fall with Sarah Palin (another hoodie aficionado).
Sawyer has finally been released from the purgatory of early-morning broadcasting, with its endless parade of tiny indignities: the back-to-school fashion shows, the quick-n-healthy kid-friendly cooking segments, the shameless synergistic interviews in service of other products in the Disney corporate family. She has joined Couric in the relatively shame-free evening hours, where the greatest embarrassment is the commercials (for adult undergarments, erectile-dysfunction remedies, and nursing homes).
To some degree, Sawyer has Couric to thank for the lack of hoopla that’s surrounded her move, for paving the way and drawing so much fire while doing so that everyone’s guns seem empty now. Watched side by side on Monday night, in a way no viewer will ever watch them, the two complemented each other nicely. Sawyer covered health care while Couric covered holiday airport delays, and then they switched. Sawyer was all dark colors and neutral makeup. Couric looked kicky in red and pearls.
Both seemed perfectly at ease in their chairs, as well they should: Women are now in the majority in the fast-contracting, but still vitally important, role of network evening news anchor.
“I don’t think anybody’s saying ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God! There are two women anchors now!’” Quinn says. “I think at this point they’re more likely to say, ‘OK, who’s going to get the ratings?’”
Rebecca Dana is a senior 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.