Diane Sawyer excels at comforting viewers -- ABC's ''PrimeTime Live'' anchor keeps the news straight-forward and honest

By Ken Tucker
Updated July 28, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Network news offers about as much detail and analysis of world events as reading the torn scraps of USA Today thrown from a moving train. Accept this conclusion of mine and you’ll find yourself wondrously liberated, no longer bound by never-never-land TV-critic standards that demand serious news from the small screen. After reading a few real, honest-to-gosh, words-on-pages newspapers in the morning, you’ll be free to enjoy TV news on its own terms: as a place where charming personalities vie for our attention, each of them apparently intent not on giving us information but on comforting us. TV news, anxious not to tell us anything that’s not relevant to our immediate, everyday lives, has gone into the reassurance business.

No one is better at this than Diane Sawyer. On ABC’s PrimeTime Live, the relegated-to-specials Turning Point, and the soon-to-vanish Day One, her tone is always firm and precise, yet chummy. On her recent, top-rated PrimeTime update on the Dilley sextuplets, Sawyer demonstrated a lovely gentleness and genuine curiosity about the children that transcended mere TV-star duty.

Sawyer frowns a little when she’s introducing a story that involves a human tragedy or a complicated set of statistics. With her frown and sometimes even a little grimace, Diane is saying to us, ”Hey, I know this is tough, but I’m here, and I’ll be back when the segment is over, and we’ll get through it together just fine.” I’ve dozed off during her intros to things like a report on how to escape when your house is on fire, safe in the knowledge that, as long as Sawyer’s lulling, protective voice was wafting through the air, no way was my house going to catch on fire.

It was this quality that probably made her a shoo-in to host the Michael and Lisa Marie Presley-Jackson interview on June 14. Like you and me, Michael Jackson has very likely spent a few evenings in thrall to Sawyer’s fuzz-toned assurances, and he probably figured she was just the sort of newsperson to lob softball questions at him and his beguilingly foul-tempered missus. (The only mistake I think Sawyer made was in trying to draw out mum Michael when it seemed clear that Lisa Marie was a volcano of opinions waiting to erupt.)

In a way, Diane Sawyer is a key transitional figure in TV news, one of the few broadcasters to tacitly acknowledge that her role as reporter is — now that TV news departments prize ratings over information — almost meaningless. At the same time, Sawyer has maintained an air of toughness and professionalism that eludes many of her colleagues. And so with PrimeTime now her only regular ABC showcase, it’s tempting to speculate: Would becoming an evening-news anchor be her logical next career step?