Lila Diane Sawyer established herself as one of the most recognized – and widely respected – faces in television news. She once said, “Follow what you are genuinely passionate about and let that guide you.” That sage advice served her well, although nothing about her progression as a trailblazing female journalist was easy or ordinary.
A native of Kentucky, Diane won first place in the 1963 national America Junior Miss scholarship pageant. She returned to her home state after graduation from Wellesley College to work as the “weather girl” for WLKY-TV in Louisville. Diane showed a keen interest in news, and demonstrated the kind of initiative that led to occasional news assignments. A story she produced on Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas prompted a hard-earned promotion to a full-time general assignment reporter position.
Things got interesting for Diane in 1970 when “following what she was passionate about” meant moving to Washington, D.C. to work in the Nixon White House as a press assistant. Only 25 years old at the time, Diane would later reflect on the pressure associated with such job saying, “I remember the terror, the terror of making a mistake. A mistake I made could alter history.” She would witness Nixon’s fall from grace which caused his resignation from the presidency in August 1974. Diane served on the Nixon-Ford transition team, and then helped Nixon write his memoirs. In a final plot twist to her government service, a close Nixon confidant later insisted that Diane was the infamous Deep Throat informant. She laughed it off at first, but eventually asked Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward to issue a public denial. (Deep Throat’s identity was officially revealed to be former F.B.I. deputy director Mark Felt in Vanity Fair magazine in 2005. – Ed.)
Diane put herself back on a solid journalistic career path in 1978 when she returned to reporting as a correspondent for CBS News. She would spend ten plus years there, rising steadily through the ranks with a series of assignments on several programs including co-anchor of CBS Morning News with legendary television journalist Charles Kuralt from 1982 to 1984. But no promotion was bigger than the one in 1984 when Diane became the first female correspondent for CBS’ marquee news magazine, 60 Minutes.
After leaving CBS News in 1989, Diane and I met for the first time at an affiliate meeting in Los Angeles where she and Sam Donoaldson were was officially introduced to ABC affiliates as the co-anchors of Primetime Live. Spending time with Diane at affiliate and board of governors meetings would become a regular occurrence over the next 25 years. We would also see each other at events ranging from political debates to the Academy Awards, from a White House Correspondents Association dinner to the ESPYs. It was also enjoyable to get together for an occasional breakfast or lunch meeting, usually to discuss the latest happenings in our personal lives as opposed to current events or network business.
It didn’t take long for Diane to establish a presence at ABC News as she conducted some of the biggest, most exclusive interviews with newsmakers from all around the world. In 1990, she spoke to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in his first interview with a western journalist in almost a decade. In 1992, Diane landed the first interview with then-President-Elect Bill Clinton and wife Hillary Clinton in their Arkansas home after he won the 1992 presidential election over President George H.W. Bush. In one of the most talked about interviews of 1995, Diane talked exclusively with Michael Jackson and his then-wife Lisa Marie Presley. It was Jackson’s first interview since facing child molestation accusations in 1993, and the only joint interview ever given by both Jackson and Presley; it was seen by nearly 60 million viewers.
After holding co-anchor roles for both Primetime Live and 20/20, Diane returned to morning news in 1999 as the co-anchor of Good Morning America. While this assignment was intended to be somewhat temporary in nature, she would remain with this important program as it closed the gap on NBC’s front-running Today show. In 2003, Diane sat down with former President George W. Bush in his first one-on-one interview following the capture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In 2006, Diane was granted rare access to North Korea where she told Good Morning America viewers that her visa was “one of the rarest things you could ever see in journalism.” During that same year, she became the only Amerian journalist to report live from not only North Korea, but Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia as well. One of Diane’s most emotional interviews occurred in 2007 when she sat down with former First Lady Nancy Reagan and they discussed her husband’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. But her most memorable work on Good Morning America tragically played out on September 11, 2001 when Diane and Charles Gibson began ABC News’ award-winning coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the days that followed, she reported live from Ground Zero and would later interview more than 60 widows who gave birth after the World Trade Center disaster.
It was also during her tenure at Good Morning America that I was able to observe how incredibly caring and supportive Diane was at the time her friend and co-anchor, Robin Roberts, battled breast cancer. My wife, Susan, and I had lunch in New York City with Diane and Robin in February 2008. Robin had just finished her chemotherapy and was about to begin radiation treatments. Even though she had taken a red-eye flight back to New York after anchoring Good Morning America’s coverage of the Academy Awards the day before, Diane insisted on joining us for lunch at an important time in Robin’s cancer treatments. Diane’s support would become even more crucial a few years later in 2012 when Robin was diagnosed with MDS or myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare blood disorder likely caused by the cancer treatments Robin had received years earlier.
In December 2009, Diane left Good Morning America in order to succeed Charles Gibson as anchor of World News. She would lead the flagship news broadcast to new heights, while also serving as the network’s principal anchor for breaking-news coverage, election coverage and special events. Prior to stepping down in June 2014, Diane covered all the big stories and conducted interviews with nearly every major news maker:
2009 – Kicked off her new role by confronting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about his country’s nuclear ambitions.
2010 – Travelled with U.S. General Stanley McChrystal through the battlefields in Afghanistan as he defended his view that if more troops were not deployed, the mission would fail; sat down with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about his highly contested reelection; reported from Haiti on the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, including visits to orphanages where she observed the “staggering” number of parentless children; anchored a primetime special to address misconceptions about Muslims following the controversy over the building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York; took World News on a rare trip to China to report on the country’s progress in the areas of education, transportation and green technologies.
2011 – Japan was hit with a devastating trifecta of disasters in the form of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency, and Diane was the only evening news anchor to report live from Japan on the aftermath; talked exclusively with Commander Mark Kelly in the wake of the tragic shooting of his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; conducted the first joint interview of outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus in Afghanistan; conducted the first interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the U.S. took military action in Libya; talked exclusively with the victim of a high-profile child kidnapping, Jaycee Dugard.
2012 – Throughout 2012, Diane anchored ABC News’ “Your Voice, Your Vote” coverage of the Presidential election with Chief Political Correspondent, George Stephanopoulos; she conducted the first interview with Mitt and Ann Romney after he secured the Republican nomination for president, and the first interview with Barack Obama after the pivotal first presidential debate.
2013 – Anchored live coverage from Washington, DC of the Presidential Inauguration, from Boston during the aftermath of the bombing at the Boston Marathon and from the Vatican during the historic transition to a new Pope; interviewed Malala Yousafzai, the young girl shot in the head by Taliban assassins simply because she wanted to go to school; talked exclusively with Amanda Knox, the college student who was exonerated of murder charges after spending four years in Italy; and sat down with President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush on the eve of the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
2014 – Sat down with former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton for the first televised interview about her new book; met with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for the first interview following his George Washington Bridge-gate press conference; and provided the kind of inspirational leadership that led to ABC News winning the Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence in Television.
While Robin Roberts’ aforementioned heart and grit have become well known, Diane could be pretty tough herself, too. In December 2011, Citadel and ABC News collaborated on the production of the Iowa Republican Presidential Debate. Diane and George Stephanopoulos co-anchored the debate that was broadcast live in primetime from Old Main Hall on the campus of Drake University. Diane was feeling just plain lousy with a bad cold and touch of flu in the days before and day of the debate, but she gutted it out like the pro she is. We flew her back to New York the following morning on our company jet, and she slept the entire way home! It turned out to be worth the effort as the broadcast was the most-watched debate of the 2012 election cycle, and seemingly kick-started ABC News’ “Your Voice, Your Vote” coverage in the months that followed. Throughout her career, Diane has been at the forefront of some the nation’s biggest political events and stories.
Diane and I would become connected in a more serious way in 2012 when World News broadcast a series of stories by reporter Jim Avila involving South Dakota-based meat processor Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) and its product “lean finely textured beef.” Avila repeatedly referred to it as “pink slime” throughout his reports (the term “pink slime” was coined by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist in a 2002 email after touring the plant – Ed.). Citadel owned KCAU-TV, the ABC affiliate in Sioux City, and found itself in the middle of the uproar from the company, many community leaders and some government officials. Several local advertisers went so far as to threaten a boycott of KCAU-TV, even though the station had no editorial control over the network’s reporting. I did intercede, in a limited way, with executives from both BPI and ABC News in an effort to address the concerns and growing tension. It was to no avail, as BPI eventually filed a libel and defamation lawsuit against the network seeking $1.9 billion in damages. Of grave concern to ABC and parent company Disney was the fact that a successful outcome could triple the damages amount to $5.7 billion under South Dakota’s strict food-libel laws. It was, in point of fact, the largest production defamation lawsuit in U.S. history and Diane was named as a defendant in the original filing. She was later dropped as a defendant in the case following a ruling by a South Dakota state judge, though she was required to give a deposition and subject to serving as a witness at the jury trial. The same was true for me even with my limited knowledge and involvement, and in August 2015 my 7-hour video deposition was taken in the conference room of a prominent Los Angeles law firm. Diane and I were careful to never discuss our respective depositions, views or the status of the case in any way. We did, however, share a sense of relief when the parties reached a settlement during the fourth week of the trial. Julie Townsend, an ABC spokesperson, said, “Although we have concluded that continued litigation of this case is not in the company’s interests, we remain committed to the vigorous pursuit of truth and the consumer’s right to know about the products they purchase.”
Most network evening news anchors have traditionally employed a standard sign off at the end of their broadcast. Diane would conclude each World News with “I’ll see you right back here tomorrow night.” That changed on August 27, 2014 when she anchored the network’s flagship news program for the final time, and said goodbye in a more deeply personal way: “And now it is time to say good night. And I just want you to know what a deep privilege it has been to sit in the anchor chair at World News these years, the flagship broadcast of ABC, where Peter Jennings created a signature of such curiosity and courage. It has been wonderful to be the home port for the brave and brilliant forces of ABC News around the world and to feel every single night you and I were in a conversation about the day together…And with gratitude for these years, I thank you and I’ll see you right back here on ABC News very soon. Good night.”
Diane is rightfully known and respected for far more than her role as an ABC News anchor. Her extensive body of work also includes original reporting, long-form interviews and in-depth investigations. Even while serving as an anchor for Good Morning America or World News, Diane regularly produced a series of reports called Hidden America to “shine a light on the people, places and stories of struggle and hope that are not well known or apparent” to viewers across the country. Importantly, Diane always made an effort to include in her reports the actions and good work of community members attempting to assist those who were struggling. Here are just a few of the challenging and often under-reported subjects she addressed:
2009 – “Children of the Mountains” In a continuation of her earlier reporting on America’s forgotten children, Diane followed the lives of thousands of families living in poverty in Central Appalachia. She showed how children face unthinkable conditions and live without what most Americans take for granted. Diane and her team were honored with a Peabody Award for the their work.
2011 – “Children of the Plains” Diane traveled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to take an in-depth look at the young dreamers and survivors were fighting back against decades of neglect. As with the Appalachia special, Diane and her team presented the case studies of several young people to show how even in a place known for its grinding poverty and alcoholism, warriors can still rise.
2012 – “Don’t Shoot I Want to Grow Up” Unfathomable to most of the country, Chicago had become a war zone with young men and women who they themselves said faced a kill-or-be-killed reality. Following months of research and interviews, this series of special reports shined a new light on stories of violence, struggle and hope in America’s third-largest city. Diane efforts included facilitating a solutions-based discussion between members of several rival gangs about what could be done to reverse the alarming trend of violence.
2013 – “Strawberry Mansion” Diane reported from Philadelphia on one of the most dangerous high schools in the United States; she was granted unprecedented access to give viewers an up-close look at what it’s like to teach, to learn and to try to gain a foothold on life there. The reporting would lead to a Deadline Club Award for ABC News.
Importantly, as was conveyed in her final World News sign off, Diane remains at ABC News to create specials and conduct high profile interviews for what will hopefully be many years to come. She had announced her decision to step away from World News in June 2014, and wrote the following to me in a note, “I cannot wait to focus on important and original work – with a little more flexibility in my day – and count on your friendship in all the good years ahead.” The “important and original work” to which Diane made reference in her note to me was also acknowledged at the time by ABC News President James Goldston. He pointed to a new role for Diane, one with her leading “a team which will create and commission original reporting, big ideas and interviews…her curiosity, passion and energy inspire us all. Diane is one of the giants of modern journalism, and we can’t wait to see where she’ll lead us next.” Without question, her commitment to tackling big issues and creating innovative specials has carried on:
2015 – In “A Nation of Women Behind Bars,” Diane covered women in four prisons for eight months in a continuation of the Hidden America series. It was her third special where she took viewers on a journey into the world of women living behind bars. This one highlighted the facts that over 5,000 women were serving life sentences and 73 percent of the inmates in women’s state prisons have mental illness. On a decidedly lighter note, Diane and actress Julie Andrews traveled to Austria for the one-hour special “The Untold Story of The Sound of Music” which celebrated the iconic film’s 50th anniversary. With the help of a drone, Diane even recreated the film’s famous opening scene! She made the poignant observation that the uplifting film “shaped a message about courage, choosing hope even when your life gets hard.”
2016 – The 1999 Columbine High School shootings were revisted when Diane sat down exclusively with Sue Klebold, the mother of shooter Dylan Klebold; in yet another Hidden America installment , Diane was granted exclusive access inside the largest jail complex in America for “Inside Rikers Island” where she reported on what was really happening behind closed doors in the face of public pressure to close it down; Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped as a child, talked with Diane about reclaiming her life after being held captive for 18 years; Diane spoke exclusively with Kate del Castillo, the actress at the center of a controversial story involving the infamous drug-lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and actor Sean Penn; and longtime ABC News’ anchor and colleague Elizabeth Vargas was interviewed by Diane for 20/20 in advance of her forthcoming memoir, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction.
2017 – In one of her most ambitious projects to date, Diane presented “My Reality: A Hidden America” in which she detailed the “startling” struggles facing America’s shrinking middle class. Her team traveled to more than a dozen cities in a year-long effort to connect with average, working Americans many of whom are part of the first generation of middle class Americans in half a century who are more likely than not to earn less than their parents.
One of Diane’s biggest interviews was presented in April 2015. It was also one with which I had the slightest of connections. Bruce Jenner was a former Olympic gold-winning decathlete and reality television star. The New York native attended Graceland College (now Graceland University) in Lamoni, Iowa. I first met Bruce at a sports banquet in Sioux City, Iowa in 1977 where he was the keynote speaker, and would occasionally see him at events and celebrity golf outings over the years. Bruce was my playing partner in the ESPYs Golf Classic in July 2014 at a time when the tabloids were reporting that he had begun the transition to a woman. None of the rumors mattered during our round that day at the Industry Hills Golf Club as he played well, and we had a great time as he entertained our foursome with stories about the recent, elaborate wedding of stepdaughter Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Later that year, media reports indicated that Bruce would, in fact, be coming out as a transgender woman and was looking for the “right” person to whom his story could be told. I sent Bruce a note encouraging him to consider sitting down with Diane Sawyer who would, in my view, avoid the sensationalism that could easily overtake such a sensitive topic. In the ensuing interview, Bruce confirmed all the speculation saying, “Yes, for all intents and purposes, I’m a woman.” The two-hour, wide-ranging special was a ratings hit that rivaled some of Diane’s other high profile interviews. But more importantly, it was recognized as a critical success for raising the bar on the reporting of transgender issues. Writing for The Huffington Post (now HuffPost), Gabriel Arana said the following: “What Diane Sawyer and ABC did was give Jenner something transgender people are so often robbed of: the opportunity to define and speak for themselves. Sawyer treated Jenner with respect, kindness and empathy, going to great lengths to let Jenner tell his own story.” Jenner publicly announced a name change from Bruce to Caitlyn in a July 2015 cover story in Vanity Fair magazine.
Diane Sawyer is a WINNER whose anchoring, original reporting, in-depth investigations and long-form interviews have defined a remarkable career. Her body of work has been recognized with numerous awards, including Emmys, duPonts, Peabodys and the USC Distinguished Achievement in Journalism Award. Diane was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1997, and she was presented the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism in 2010.
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(October 14, 2011). “20/20: A Hidden America – Children of the Plains” Retrieved from www.amazon.com
(October 18, 2012). “Hidden America: ‘Don’t Shoot, I Want to Grow Up’ I Diane Sawyer investigates the impact of gang violence in America” Retrieved from www.abc7chicago.com
(May 28, 2013). “ABC’s Diane Sawyer Visits Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia, One of the Most Dangerous High Schools in the U.S.” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
(June 25, 2014). “Diane Sawyer to Step Down as ‘World News’ Anchor” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
Yahr, Emily (August 27, 2014). “Diane Sawyer says goodbye to ‘ABC World News’ with little fanfare; read her farewell speech” Retrieved from www.washingtonpost.com
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Boedeker, Hal (February 26, 2015). “Diane Sawyer vists Ocala prison for special” Retrieved from www.orlandosentinel.com
Flood, Brian (March 15, 2015). “Diane Sawyer Celbrating 50th Anniversary of ‘The Sound of Music’” Retrieved from www.adweek.com
Pallotta, Frank (April 24, 2015). “Jenner, Lewinsky, LeBron: 8 TV interviews everyone watched” Retrieved from www.money.cnn.com
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Nesheim, Jay Jay (June 1, 2015). “Caitlyn Jenner to be Honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at The 2015 ESPYS on ABC July 15” Retrieved from www.espnmediazone.com
Walsh, Mark (February 11, 2016). “On ABC, Diane Sawyer to Interview Mother of a Columbine Killer” Retrieved from www.blogs.edweek.org
Scott, Van (May 18, 2016). “ABC News’ Diane Sawyer Reports from Behind the Bars at Rikers Island on Its Culture of Violence and Proposed Reforms” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
Dooley, Sean (July 8, 2016). “Jaycee Dugard on Reclaiming Her Life After Being Held Captive for 18 Years: ‘I Have Lived a Lot of Lifetimes’” Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com
(September 2, 2016). “Scoop: 20/20 on ABC – Friday, September 9, 2016” Retreived from www.broadwayworld.com
Flood, Brian (January 4, 2017). “Diane Sawyer to Expose ‘Startling’ Middle Class Struggle in New ‘20/20’ Special (Exclusive)” Retrieved from www.thewrap.com
Hipes, Patrick (March 14, 2017). “Diane Sawyer Freed From ABC News “Pink Slime” Lawsuit As It Moves Forward” Retrieved from www.deadline.com
Nord, James (June 29, 2017). “ABC, Meat Producer Settle $1.9B Lean Beef Libel Suit” Retrieved from www.desmoinesregister.com