Following the Wednesday announcement that Diane Sawyer would soon occupy the solo anchor seat relinquished by a retiring Charles Gibson on "World News Tonight," commentators were quick to weigh in. There has been talk of the entrenched, possibly apocryphal rivalry between Sawyer and her temperamental opposite, Katie Couric, advice to Sawyer not to take the job, with its aging, diminishing audience and gossip that Gibson is “livid” Sawyer was chosen to replace him. Yet perhaps the strangest response came from the feminist site Feministing, where writer Courtney Martin, after fretting whether Sawyer “would receive the same kind of scrutiny Couric has,” lamented the fact that Sawyer, like Couric, fits into a “newsmommy model.” The networks, writes Martin, apparently select “women who are non-threatening, aka maternal, for the top positions so as not to freak out viewers still not used the idea that women can be assertive, independent, and -- gasp -- childless.”
Now, I’m all for advocating for a culture that values women for achievements other than children, but to dismiss Sawyer as a “newsmommy” seems a characterization that is unthinking, superficial and misplaced. Sawyer is many things -- smart, competent, often witty, exceedingly attractive -- but “maternal” is not an adjective that springs to mind. You might even call her telepresence the opposite of maternal: glossy, self-contained, occaisionally remote. (Times television critic Alessandra Stanley once remarked upon Sawyer’s “poised, creamy insincerity.”) All of this, in addition to her wealth, her high-powered pedigree (she was an aide to Nixon, the first female correspondent on "60 Minutes"), and her high-powered marriage to director Mike Nichols hardly makes her “non-threatening” and “maternal.” She may, in fact, be the definition of threatening, at least on paper, and her popularity at "Good Morning America," whose ratings her anchorship helped raise, perhaps speaks better of what will or will not “freak out” the American viewing public than any knee-jerk assumptions we critics might make. (Side quibble: Since when is maternal the “aka” equivalent of non-threatening? My mother certainly doesn’t fit that bill.) And let’s not forget the fact that Sawyer doesn’t even have children. So what, exactly, is it that qualifies her as maternal? That she is a woman of a certain age? This is the sort of stereotyping feminists have long worked to combat.
If, in some alternate universe, Sawyer had been installed in her new position for her warm, maternal appeal, merely saying that she “seems like a perfectly decent interviewer and a hardworking journalist” might be acceptable. But applied to Sawyer, this flaccid summation reads like a classic case of damning with faint praise. A 40-year veteran, Sawyer is no stranger to hard news; she has interviewed, among many other political and cultural figures, Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad, Antonin Scalia and every president (plus first wives Nancy and Hillary) since George H.W. Bush. The New York Times reported that when she interviewed Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley back in 1995, she prefaced her queries about their sex life with this slightly perturbed admission: “I didn’t spend my life as a serious journalist to ask these kinds of questions.” In 2008, Forbes ranked her 65th on the list of the "World's 100 Most Powerful Women.” She is said to command a salary of between $12 and $15 million a year. It’s the job of feminists like Martin to recognize and point out that Sawyer’s achievements led to her promotion as much as, and perhaps more than, her onscreen appeal. It is the job of any writer, but particularly a feminist one, to characterize that appeal as sharply as precisely as possible, not to peddle an age-old -- and, in this case, inaccurate -- female stereotype.