Sawyer Cruises, Backing Gibson As ABC Anchor

Don’t unplug that coffeepot just yet: Diane Sawyer isn’t angling to leave Good Morning America for World News Tonight, according to two ABC staffers. Instead, Ms. Sawyer has been pushing for her morning co-host, Charles Gibson, to take over the unsettled evening anchor desk.

“Diane was lobbying last week for Charlie to get the job,” said one staffer.

Going into the weekend, industry insiders had been ever more convinced that Ms. Sawyer was pushing herself. Three months after being publicly ruled out for the anchor job, in favor of the youthful tandem of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, Ms. Sawyer was thought to have won a second shot.

“Whatever Diane wants, Diane gets,” one usually staid television source sang into the telephone on March 9, to the tune of “What Lola Wants, Lola Gets” from Damn Yankees. “And look out, little Vargas, Diane wants you.”

But five days later, ABC staffers said that what Ms. Sawyer wanted was Mr. Gibson.

“The great irony of that whole thing,” one staffer said, “[was] as the rest of the world was talking about how she was lobbying to get the job for herself, it was quite the opposite.”

On March 13, a flurry of phone calls took place among ABC higher-ups discussing how the network should announce its decision—whatever that decision might be—about the future of the World News Tonight anchor desk, according to two sources who witnessed the calls. The next day came and went with no announcement.

And all the while, as her network searched for an anchor, Ms. Sawyer was out at sea—aboard a yacht in the Caribbean, on an unpublicized vacation. The only word about a decision came from the New York Post’s Cindy Adams, who startled the speculators by declaring on March 13 that Mr. Gibson was getting the job. “ABC will announce Gibson soon,” Ms. Adams wrote. “I announce the announcement now.”

Superstition among lower-level staffers holds that whenever Ms. Sawyer takes a holiday, a personnel shakeup happens. She was likewise out of town in December, for part of the previous final decision-making process about the anchor job.

Undoing that decision remains a sticky challenge for ABC News president David Westin. Mr. Woodruff, on the long road to recovery from his Iraq injuries, is unavailable indefinitely; Ms. Vargas, minus her partner-in-youthfulness, is fumbling for a role. The news division has suspended one feature of its revamped evening programming: the nightly live West Coast feed. That broadcast, at 9:30 p.m. Eastern, was meant to win over the largely untapped California audience with fresher news. But owing to the strain it put on the rotating fill-in anchors, the project has quietly been all but abandoned for now, network sources said. One recent evening, Ms. Vargas was spotted leaving the studios at 7:30 p.m.

Good Morning America, by contrast, is motoring along smoothly—raising the question of why Ms. Sawyer would have wanted to anchor World News Tonight in the first place.

Being the lead female host of a morning program and aspiring to anchor the evening news is a bit like starring in a feature film and hoping someday to make it in radio. The action is in the mornings these days—the audience growing, the advertising dollars pouring in. If she were to go to World News Tonight, Ms. Sawyer would swap a $530 million franchise for a $150 million one.

So why the fuss over the evening slot for Ms. Sawyer—to say nothing of Katie Couric’s rumored move from Today to the CBS Evening News? “Because it’s a differentiating factor,” said David Burke, Roone Arledge’s onetime right-hand man and the former president of CBS News. “They’re human beings. It is a sign of respect of the institution. And why the hell shouldn’t they want it? If I were Katie Couric, or if I were Diane—both of whom are pretty good—I would want it myself.”

Yet that old value system, and its underlying assumptions, may be on its way out. Several industry sources said that the day might be coming when the morning hosts usurp the old privileges of the evening anchors—not by taking over their jobs, but from the morning desks. Eventually, it may be that when a major story breaks, the face of ABC News is that of GMA’s Diane Sawyer.

“The morning is gaining,” an ABC source said. “The evening is losing. It’s more important for her to be in the morning, so she’ll stay. It’s that simple.”

Perhaps Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Couric don’t want to take their morning rivalry to the evenings after all. Within NBC, there are now rumors that Ms. Couric’s enthusiasm for the CBS Evening News anchor chair has cooled. Nothing will likely be settled at CBS till May, but the very notion suggests that a shift of prestige is underway.

“That turn may have already happened,” said one high-placed NBC source. The morning, the source said, is “about the only place left you can surprise people with news. You can’t surprise anybody at 6:30 in the evening. You need a little bit of a recap. It’s the whole post-9/11 thing. When I wake up in the morning, I want to know the world’s in one piece.”

“There comes a time when common sense says, ‘Hey!’” Mike Wallace said.

The CBS News titan, 87, was on the phone March 14, discussing the news that he would be stepping aside this coming spring.

“I’m a little bit deaf,” Mr. Wallace was explaining. “I have hearing aids and I have seeing aids, and all of the things that happen when you’re a little bit older than you used to be. It’s hard to acknowledge it, obviously.”

Mr. Wallace’s retirement, after six decades in broadcasting, is not exactly a retirement. His new title at CBS will be “correspondent emeritus.”

“I’ll have an office right around the corner from where I’ve been holed up here for the past 40-odd years, and I’ll continue to do things, but I’m not going to do it regularly,” Mr. Wallace said.

Don Hewitt, who created 60 Minutes with Mr. Wallace in 1962, declared that his star correspondent was on the wrong side of a “youth kick” in the industry.

“It’s not just television,” Mr. Hewitt, 83, said. “It’s The New York Times. It’s your newspaper. It’s Newsweek. It’s Time. It’s U.S. News. Everybody is on a demographic binge. Certain guys who don’t fall into the right age categories are considered liabilities in an age when youth is king.”

But the older generation doesn’t go very far. In the last year, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Ted Koppel have likewise all left their jobs without exactly quitting the business. Walter Cronkite, who began anchoring the CBS Evening News in 1962 and officially retired in 1981, still keeps an office at the network, which he still visits and where he still takes calls.

And Mr. Hewitt, who retired in 2003, was on the phone from his own CBS office as he pondered whether Mr. Wallace’s change in status was voluntary.

“Was he pushed?” asked Mr. Hewitt. “I don’t know. I don’t even want to discuss it. I don’t want to hear it.”

Mr. Wallace’s relationship with CBS hadn’t been hunky-dory lately. In September, 60 Minutes producer Jeff Fager told the Associated Press that Mr. Wallace “sometimes … can’t remember what he had for breakfast but he can still pin someone down on an interview.” Mr. Fager later apologized.

A month later, Mr. Wallace gave his first interview promoting his memoir, Between You and Me, to NBC. “Nobody was interested at CBS. It was quite apparent,” Mr. Wallace told The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, to his network’s vehement denials.

Mr. Wallace’s retirement will mark the end—or the beginning of the end—of a career that started in the 1940’s in radio work for the Chicago Sun, and moved to CBS News in 1962. Mr. Wallace has interviewed virtually everyone who did something important in the last half-century, including Manuel Noriega, Ayatollah Khomeini, Menachem Begin, Anwar el-Sadat, Vladimir Horowitz, Johnny Carson, Leonard Bernstein and every President since Kennedy. Over the course of his career, Mr. Wallace has won three Alfred I. duPont Awards, three Peabodys and 20 Emmys, including one for Lifetime Achievement, awarded in 2003.

“It’s time for me to get out of the way and let somebody else have this office,” Mr. Wallace said.

As long as there’s another office waiting!

Mr. Hewitt said he could empathize with Mr. Wallace’s gone-but-not-gone exit strategy. “I got a big old office, and I sit here among all my memories, a wall full of Emmys, pictures of myself with every President of the United States going back to Harry Truman.

“You live with your memories,” he said, “and Mike will do the same thing.”