On Monday evening, one of the most respected, highly experienced journalists in television, a reporter who has won nearly every award the industry has to offer, took over the anchor desk at ABC's World News. And boy did it get Tom Shales hot and bothered.
Diane Sawyer's debut as an evening news anchor was, by most accounts, a quiet success. The network didn't build up to her ascension to the throne with the fanfare that CBS did when Katie Couric became their evening anchor three years ago. Instead, on the day before her 64th birthday, she slipped into her new role with exactly the same brand of authoritative cool she's known for. She aired a pre-taped interview she'd done with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, welcomed her Good Morning America successor George Stephanopoulos to discuss healthcare, and rebounded promptly when a teaser about Brittany Murphy showed a shot of Ahmadinejad instead.
The reaction to her first night was likewise generally subdued. "The Baltimore Sun's" critic David Zurawik noted Sawyer's "poise" and "strong presence," while the notoriously error-prone "New York Times'" Alessandra Stanley praised Sawyer's "twinkly warmth," which is like praising Oprah Winfrey's for her restraint. And across the Web this morning, little has been made of the new anchor's gender – perhaps because her credentials and performance speak for themselves.
But in "The Washington Post," the stalwart Tom Shales couldn't hold back, getting right to business in the first sentence. "Ideally, the gorgeousness of Diane Sawyer should not be a factor in assessing her performance," he wrote, which is a dead giveaway to what's coming next. Shales then continued to dance around our "leading lady's looks" under the pretense of commenting on the show's numerous close-ups of her. Yet it seems a journalistic stretch to note Sawyer's lack of a brand new set by saying, "even Cleopatra needed a barge." He then went on to compare the graciousness of Ms. Sawyer to that of Grace Kelly, Meryl Streep and Cary Grant. And when he suggested that ABC 's cameras could confidently pull back from their "wonder woman," he explained Sawyer can "hold us captive without seeming to sit in our veritable laps." Still, based on his slavish, get-a-room-already appreciation, we can't help suspecting that Shales would be quite content with the former beauty queen on his lap, whispering sweet headlines.