What Diane Sawyer's departure from "World News" means for women, and for network news

The ABC News anchor's departure is a major loss -- and may mark the end of broadcast news as we know it

Published June 25, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

Diane Sawyer appears on ABC's "Good Morning America" show, in New York, Friday, August 21, 2009.
Diane Sawyer appears on ABC's "Good Morning America" show, in New York, Friday, August 21, 2009.

ABC News announced this morning that Diane Sawyer will be leaving her role as the anchor of the network's flagship "World News," to be replaced by weekend anchor David Muir. It's a change that, once again, will put men in all three anchor chairs for the first time since 2006 -- and one that marks a fairly significant changing of the guard for ABC.

Sawyer's not leaving ABC; in ABC's own language, she will be pursuing major interviews and producing occasional specials. That's effectively Barbara Walters' former job, before Walters retired in May. But unlike Walters, who was for decades a branded commodity at the network (her interviews weren't interviews, they were Barbara Walters Specials), Sawyer has been a utility player for ABC, one who's gone where she was needed.

Her career has been the opposite of flashy -- in many ways, the opposite of Walters' -- and basically lacks an "iconic Sawyer moment." When one considers Sawyer, there is just a general penumbra of forward-leans and head-tilts, the body language of "relatability." Indeed, after her time at "60 Minutes" and then her years anchoring ABC's newsmagazines, Sawyer was tasked with rescuing "Good Morning America," a gig some believed was beneath a journalist of her stature. (To wit: Can you imagine even Katie Couric, a morning superstar who's fizzled on the evening news and in the afternoons, returning to "Today"?)

And she only got the "World News" gig after the short-lived anchor team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, and then Charles Gibson, had their turns. She was for years a victim, perhaps, of her own success at "Good Morning America." As a prestigious journalist who was so good at seeming friendly toward a predominantly female audience over coffee (contrast that with Walters, who could seem on "The View" like a queen visiting the provinces), a promotion seemed impossible.

She brought to "World News" a morning-TV sensibility; the show got criticized, but also got higher ratings, for its somewhat softer tone and change in focus (charges the network pushed back on). The fact that a woman was hosting an evening newscast, fortunately, didn't feel remarkable: The beginning of her tenure overlapped with the end of Couric's, and Sawyer had been eminent on TV for decades, during most of which time her public persona wildly outstripped her actual job title.

Sawyer was never the first or the most prominent anything. She followed Walters, hardly shy about self-promotion, at ABC News; Couric beat her to the punch as the first evening-news anchor. And by the time she took over at "World News," the network's political and hard-news coverage was more in the wheelhouse of George Stephanopoulos.

She was, though, a very successful member of a particular generation of broadcasters for whom the opportunity to be an authoritative voice was everything. Sawyer waited her entire career to host a newscast. Meanwhile, people just a bit younger have been forced to accept that such jobs are not what they once were. Muir will be the anchor of "World News" but will see Stephanopoulos handling special reports and breaking news -- what's the 6:30 newscast worth now, anyway? Couric has been peppily optimistic, in interviews, about her new job at Yahoo.

So even though it's unfortunate that the three nightly news anchors, post-Sawyer, will all be white men (Muir on ABC, Brian Williams on NBC, Scott Pelley on CBS) -- on the other hand, of course they will be. Perhaps the nightly newscast that so long eluded Sawyer is a mission so archaic that a middle-aged white guy is best-suited to undertake it. We can still catch the most notable moments of Sawyer's forthcoming big interviews (good luck to her!) in brief bites online. Or on "Good Morning America," a show that knows exactly what audience it's speaking to, and whose success may be Sawyer's real legacy.

By Daniel D'Addario

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