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Prime Time of Ms. Diane Sawyer : Big ratings. Respect. Charm. Beauty. Celebrated, loving husband. Is there anything this woman lacks? (Did we mention her $7-million salary?) Anyway, let’s ask her.

<i> Jane Hall is a Times staff writer based in New York</i>

Diane Sawyer walks into the hushed, elegant restaurant on Central Park South like a swan gliding across a glassy lake. She is effortlessly gorgeous, dressed all in white and cream colors that match her pale skin. But when she sits down, she says shyly, “I nearly tripped and fell on the way down the steps. I’m always walking into walls.”

It’s hard to imagine Diane Sawyer being a klutz, just as it is hard to imagine her being unaware of the effect of her great beauty and charm. Yet those who have penetrated Sawyer’s carefully guarded image say that there is an unexpectedly vulnerable side to her, a woman who knows she is beautiful today but still feels like the awkward kid sister in cat-eye glasses, the one who still says, “I was dorky longer than I care to remember.”

“She wears big eyeglasses and no makeup around the office, and there’s something almost frail-looking about her,” says one colleague. “But when those camera lights go on, man, it is magic time.” That magic, combined with intelligence, journalistic skill and hard work, have made Sawyer, at 48, one of the highest paid and most powerful women in television news. To retain her services earlier this year amid a bidding war involving all three of its major network competitors, ABC ponied up a five-year contact that pays an estimated $7 million a year and will give her high-profile exposure on the newsmagazines “Turning Point” and “Day One” in addition to “PrimeTime Live,” which she has co-anchored since 1989.

“The network news divisions have locked themselves into a star system that is like the Hollywood movie studios in the 1930s,” says media critic and former CBS producer Jon Katz. Indeed, with newsmagazines playing an increasingly important role in the networks’ prime-time schedules--there were 10 on every week at one point last season, because they are cheaper to produce and often are higher rated than one-hour dramas--marquee value has become as important for anchors as it is for the actors in a series or motion picture.

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And she’s got it.

“Diane Sawyer,” ABC News President Roone Arledge explains, “is one of a handful of people in TV news--like Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel or Barbara Walters--who are able to make or break a franchise in news. Diane can do newsmagazines. She can do hard news. She’s intelligent. She’s a personality. She is someone whose presence on a news program makes a difference. It’s like putting Michael Jordan into the game. You want to watch what she does.”

But Sawyer herself is elusive--and contradictory. For all her glamour, people who work with her say that she is one of the hardest-working anchors on any newsmagazine, not a star who phones it in but a serious journalist who has pushed “PrimeTime Live” to report on topics such as welfare reform, health care for women and government waste. She has a reputation for being coldly calculating in her career moves, but she spent hours agonizing over her decision about whether to stay at ABC.

She certainly had no shortage of suitors. NBC News President Andrew Lack wanted to build a “strip” of newsmagazines around Sawyer across four nights a week. Rupert Murdoch, seeking to build a news division for his network, wanted Sawyer to anchor a prime-time newsmagazine following the NFL football games he is bringing to Fox this fall. CBS Broadcast Group President Howard Stringer--whose network lost Sawyer when Arledge wooed her away from “60 Minutes” in 1989--offered a “Nightline"-style newscast for syndication--including, sources say, a percentage of the profits. In fact, sources say that both the CBS and Fox deals involved more money than what ABC offered.

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“It was not about the money,” Sawyer said over lunch. “It was about how you’re going to spend your working life over the next several years.

“Each of the networks is trying to figure out how to use the air time that we have on newsmagazines,” she said. “I stayed at ABC to continue to work with Roone and other ABC executives and with the producers, correspondents and anchors at the network.”

Asked whether she feels she’s worth her salary, Sawyer responded, “It’s not as if you wake up in the morning and say, ‘Boy, do I deserve this!'--because you know you don’t. But we’re in a marketplace where these salaries are paid. The money is there; it’s like something you look at. You look in the closet door and say ‘Oh, my’ and go off and do what you’ve been doing for 15 years. I didn’t get into this business for the money--I got into it for the work.”

Yet her work too is sometimes a contradiction. While she has won awards for investigative reporting, she also does interviews with celebrities and has jumped into the tabloid realm with interviews related to the Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson and Charles Manson cases. People still remember her infamous question several years ago to Marla Maples on the subject of dating Donald Trump: “Was it the best sex you ever had?”

In an essay in the New York Times when Sawyer signed her contract several months ago, cultural critic Frank Rich wondered which would prevail: the anchor who has done many “diligently reported pieces” or the anchor who occasionally “pitches softballs” to some celebrity in the news?

Sawyer defends her work and says that print critics’ focus on the “tabloid-style” stories ignores the bulk of her efforts.

“It’s all about balance and proportion,” Sawyer said. “I do about 40 pieces a year on ‘PrimeTime,’ and 90% of them are a serious investigation of issues that can affect people’s lives. I think critics tend to remember the ‘tabloid-style’ stories more than the work that we spend most of our time on. ‘PrimeTime Live’ has done far fewer of those stories than some other shows--we didn’t do any stories on Lorena Bobbit, for example. And I don’t know of any major newspaper that wouldn’t have wanted the first interview with (Harding “hit man”’) Shawn Eckardt or O.J. Simpson’s girlfriend.”

Sawyer’s question to Maples was, she said, a misunderstood, humorous takeoff on a headline allegedly quoting Maples in the New York Post. And she maintained that the interviews with Manson’s female followers on “Turning Point” provided a cautionary tale about cult behavior.

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Sawyer is currently working on six stories for “PrimeTime Live,” ranging from a profile of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to an investigative piece on the environment and a look at research on the brain. The next program she is doing for “Turning Point” is on public policy and children, a story that reflects her own interest in what she calls “the consequences of neglect” of children.

“Diane Sawyer is at an interesting place in her career,” says media critic Katz, who was executive producer of “CBS Morning News” when Sawyer worked there. “She can sometimes be cloying when she’s interviewing another famous person--she literally swooned in an interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov a few years ago, and I’m not sure what news came out of her interview with Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet coup. But she’s established herself as a credible news authority, and ‘PrimeTime Live’ is one of the most serious of the newsmagazines.”

S awyer’s new contract calls for her to continue as co-anchor with Sam Donaldson on “PrimeTime Live” while also appearing on “Turning Point” and “Day One.” “It’s not as megalomaniacal as it sounds,” she says. “I’m not the engine; I’m one of the interchangeable parts among the anchors.”

She said she will anchor four “Turning Point” programs a year, rotating the duty with Jennings and Walters, and will contribute to “Day One,” although that program is being revamped and she could wind up as a co-anchor with Forrest Sawyer when it returns in January.

The idea of spreading her and ABC’s other news stars around is to create a unifying identity among the newsmagazines, a concept that NBC is instituting this fall by turning its newsmagazine “Now” into a third edition of “Dateline NBC,” with Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips anchoring all three.

One factor in her decision to stay at ABC, Sawyer said, was the creation of a central unit to help the network’s four competitive newsmagazines book guests without stepping on one another’s toes. “What I couldn’t stand was that I was making phone calls on stories, ‘Day One’ was making phone calls on stories, ’20/20' was making phone calls--it was crazy, taking all our time doing this,” Sawyer said. “During the O.J. Simpson story, for example, we had coordination in the reporting by the newsmagazines, and it improved our coverage.”

But some ABC News staffers say the concept is largely designed to help get the story for Sawyer, since she’s got three newsmagazines behind her, and they wonder whether Walters will participate. In the heated competition for the biggest-name guests, says one ABC source, “I don’t think you’ll see Barbara Walters participating in some central booking unit.”

Stories of personal animosity between Sawyer and Walters, the first woman to anchor a network evening newscast, have plagued the two over the past several years. In the early days of “PrimeTime Live,” Walters is said to have told producers on “20/20,” her top-rated newsmagazine, that she did not want her show to lose high-profile interviews to Sawyer’s series. The two women have competed for exclusives, but both say they are friends.

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“Our shows have been competitive for interviews,” says Sawyer, “and we’re competitive journalists. But we’re respectful of each other’s work, and we’d rather one of us get the interview than have it go to someone at CBS or NBC.”

The daughter of a Republican judge and a homemaker who instilled her daughters with intellectual drive and ambition, Sawyer grew up in Louisville, Ky. She idealized her older sister, Linda, whose advice she still follows on clothes. “She was skilled and graceful at everything she did,” Sawyer says admiringly. “She was always looking out for me. I was awkward. When we were children in the Christmas pageant, she was the dancing snowflake. I was the icicle, the one who moved stiffly around the stage.”

After graduating from Wellesley College in 1967, Sawyer got her first job in TV, working as a “weather girl” at a Louisville station. “That was literally the only job held by a woman at the station at the time,” she says.

After four years there, Sawyer moved to Washington, where she was hired as an aide to Ronald Ziegler, press secretary in the Nixon White House. “I was drawn to working in the government because it seemed like a chance to do things,” she says.

She arrived just before the Watergate crisis and ended up becoming an in-house expert on White House notes and papers relating to the scandal. “Nixon was such an idiosyncratic character that it seemed possible at first that he might not have known about Watergate,” Sawyer says.

After Nixon’s resignation, Sawyer and three other aides went to California with Nixon to help him prepare his memoirs. She did it out of loyalty, she says.

In 1978, Bill Small, then president of CBS News, hired Sawyer to be a reporter in the Washington bureau, over the objections of many in the news division who took issue with her partisan political background. But she dispelled their concerns with tenacity, staking out every third-rate story she was sent on. She was given the State Department beat and in 1981 was named co-anchor with Bill Kurtis of “CBS This Morning.”

“Diane was breathtakingly political in her early days at CBS,” says former producer Katz. “She has always been very adept at establishing strong ties with management, whether it’s (CBS founder William S.) Paley or Roone Arledge and the management at ABC. Diane understands how to maneuver the tricky waters in television. Ed Joyce (then president of CBS News) told me that Sawyer was in his office complaining about Bill Kurtis--but Bill Kurtis was in there complaining about Sawyer too! Being a co-anchor with Diane is not a place for the lazy--she’ll out-perform you on the air and out-work you in her reporting.”

In 1984, Don Hewitt, the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” chose Sawyer to be the first female correspondent on the newsmagazine. Four years later, Arledge lured her to ABC with the promise of her own newsmagazine. She was paired with Donaldson, the aggressive White House reporter, in a teaming that Sawyer jokingly called “Emily Dickinson meets the Terminator.”

The premiere was a disaster. “The studio audience seemed to be hissing us whenever we tried to ask a question,” Sawyer recalls ruefully, “and we were trying to do live interviews that should not have been done live. Yes, Sam and I had no chemistry on the air--but that’s like saying the Muzak was not good on the Hindenburg.”

Arledge, executive producer Rick Kaplan, Sawyer and Donaldson met to fix the show. The live-from-New-York element was quickly scrapped, producers began working on videotaped pieces, and Donaldson moved to Washington, where he remains. Under Kaplan, producer Ira Rosen and others, “PrimeTime” eventually developed a strong mix of correspondents and stories, including the hidden-camera pieces for which it has become known.

“Diane is the one who pushed to do exposes on televangelism, day care and other stories that helped establish ‘PrimeTime Live,’ ” Kaplan says. “She ought to be known as a serious journalist, but because she’s blond and beautiful, she somehow doesn’t get credit for that.”

There were rumors early on that Sawyer and Donaldson did not get along personally, but both say that this is not true. “I think Diane is terrific,” Donaldson says. He says he felt that it was better for him to work out of Washington, his longtime base, “and it’s a decision that has proved right.”

Like other anchors, Sawyer works with producers who do the initial reporting on stories. But she comes up with many story ideas and is involved in every aspect of the piece, from interviewing to writing. Along with Phyllis McGrady, who succeeded Kaplan as executive producer this year when he took over “World News Tonight,” Sawyer is said to have a great deal to say about stories and staffing on the show.

But she seems uncomfortable with the “powerful” label. “I have a lot of ideas and opinions, but I’m not sure my role is so central,” she says. “Yes, I have power at the network, but so do Peter and Ted and Barbara and the executive producers of our programs.”

“You don’t get these jobs by being self-effacing,” Katz says, “and what Diane has done is no different from the male anchors. Believe me, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather have established close ties with management and gotten the resources they want for their shows.”

I n 1986, while she was still at “60 Minutes,” Sawyer met her ro mantic match--in the Concorde lounge at the Paris airport. Film director Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), who had admired her on “CBS This Morning,” came over and introduced himself.

Sawyer had put Nichols on her “wish list” of possible “60 Minutes” profiles, and she asked him to lunch to discuss the prospects. About six months later, Nichols, having separated from his third wife, called Sawyer for a date. They were married in 1988.

“He is the sunniest apocalyptic I know,” Sawyer says of her husband, who is known for his mordant humor.

“She is the kindest, smartest, most beautiful woman I’ve known,” says Nichols, 62. “I love her entirely.”

The pair are photographed by paparazzi whenever they appear together at a public event, but they are not regulars on the social circuit, preferring instead to be together in their Manhattan apartment or in their weekend house in Upstate New York.

Sawyer continues to make two- and three-day trips on her stories, but if their work schedules require lengthy periods away from home, she and Nichols arrange to meet. And they support each other’s careers where they can. During a meeting with the producers and cast of Nichols’ movie “Wolf,” he says, “People seemed surprised to see Diane pouring iced tea for everybody.” Meanwhile, he recently stood in the background while she attended a CBS affiliates conference.

Nichols says that he doesn’t want Sawyer to change her work-life to accommodate him. Slowing her down, he said, “would be like taking a Ferrari to go shopping.”


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