For Connie Chung, Diane Sawyer's appointment as the second woman to solo-anchor a network evening newscast is just as historic as when current CBS News anchor Katie Couric broke the gender barrier three years ago and plopped herself into the chair once occupied by Walter Cronkite. As the second woman to co-anchor an evening news telecast (with Dan Rather on The CBS Evening News, 1993-1995), Chung has a strong sense of how the anchor desk sits at the crossroads of history. "Katie broke ground, but what has happened today with Diane means Katie's appointment wasn't just an aberration or a token gesture, not that anyone thought it was," Chung told NEWSWEEK shortly after news broke that Sawyer would succeed Charles Gibson on ABC's World News Tonight. "But what breaks the ceiling is not just having one male cheerleader on the squad. We have never seen two women solo anchors on the networks' flagship program[s]."
In an era of high-value analysis and commodity news, Chung has a blunt take on the larger meaning of Diane Sawyer as the face of ABC News. "This signifies that the age of dinosaur behavior in the news industry is over," says Chung, who is a longtime Sawyer acquaintance. "The network-news flagship program has been the last vestige of the dark ages. The anchor has always been traditionally a male—a white male." Today, Chung, 63, is largely out of the network-news spotlight. At CBS, she anchored the Saturday telecast of The CBS Evening News and two prime-time series, Face to Face With Connie Chung and later Eye to Eye With Connie Chung. These days, she jokes, she does little beyond "sponging off of my husband," television host Maury Povich. Chung spoke by phone with NEWSWEEK's Johnnie L. Roberts about TV newswomen, former co-anchor Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS, and, um, antler chandeliers.
Does Sawyer's promotion mark any other firsts?
I'm reminded that Diane is 63 or 64, because I'm 63, and we're the same age. I'm thrilled that a woman in her early 60s is taking on a significant job in the TV news business. That age was always considered to be fine for men, but questionable for women. That's another barrier broken. Diane's ascension is another nail in the coffin of old-school television news, and the good-ol'-boy network. And that's good. That's spectacular.
But anchors today don't have nearly the clout they once did, right?
I only wish this occurred at a time when network news was dominant. But now with Katie, Diane, and Brian Williams [of NBC Nightly News], perhaps there will be enough viewer interest to return some of the dominance. I don't know if the pendulum will ever swing completely [back]. We'll never all sit and watch evening news [in numbers] like Cronkite use to attract. Life has changed regarding how people get their news.
If they can't help grow the audience, won't it be unfortunate that two women will have to battle for ratings?
I wouldn't put it that way. To isolate the two is a chauvinistic approach to create a catfight between two women. That will not be the case. The fact is, it will be a three-way battle. There will be no fingernails. Brian will not be putting on a skirt. There will be no mudslinging, only professionalism from all three of them. And that's the way it should be viewed.
George Stephanopoulos of ABC's Sunday show This Week and the late Tim Russert of NBC started in politics and made the leap into TV news. Sawyer was among the first to hew to that path, having been a top aide to Richard Nixon before landing at CBS. You knew her. What was it like when she started?
There was consternation in the D.C. bureau, particularly because most people in [there] actually covered Watergate. There was that so-called taint, not like today when anchors shift from news commentator to candidate and back. She proved herself by covering the news, eventually including the State Department. I think it was during the hostage crisis that she slept on folding chairs in the State Department press room so she'd be up in the morning and [ready to] report on The CBS Morning News.
It's long been rumored that Sawyer coveted the anchor chair, and over the years she's been characterized as ambitious to a fault. What do you say to that?
There's no doubt that she has coveted the position. Anyone in our business would want to be Walter Cronkite. I think anyone who claims they never wanted it would be lying. To this day, I think it's a coveted position, despite its change in stature. She's probably very thrilled, as she should be.
You joked earlier about sponging off Maury. I happen to know otherwise. Tell me about what you're doing at Maury's newspaper?
My husband started a weekly newspaper, the Flathead Beacon, a couple of years ago in Montana, and it has a Web site. Maury has been bugging me to do a Webcast. So I came up with this idea. I went around with my "Connie Cam" this summer to search for "Montana wisdom"—Montana wisdom on fishing, on antler chandeliers, on logging, and on growing organic foods. I'm now transferring it to tape that I can edit. I don't know when it debuts. It's really on my own speed.
What do you think about the fact that Dan Rather, your former co-anchor at CBS, is suing the network?
It's a shame. I always believe it's better to move on.
Any final advice for Diane?
Diane will know what to do. It's what she's always done, and that's work hard. She's a 24/7 news person. I have never known her to sleep, quite frankly. She's works day and night, and that's my only lament for her—that she's not taking a big, long break like I am.