A talk with CBS's Diane Sawyer -- and the start of cable culture

Diane Sawyer is nervous. It is just a few days before she is to inaugurate the new CBS news "Morning with Charles Kuralt and Diane Sawyer," but a casual observer would never realize this calm newswoman is nervous unless Miss Sawyer revealed the fact herself. She does.

But since this interview, Miss Sawyer has been seen on air for two weeks on CBS every morning from 7:30-9 (check local listings) and has proved to be at ease and totally professional as she reads the news she has written and/or edited herself, deferring ever so slightly to the greater experience of her co-anchor, Charles Kuralt.

"We both think the most important thing we have to do is write what we are saying," she says. "Good journalism to us means good writing -- so we're going to concentrate on it. I think it's also a way of keeping intellectually fit."

Why was she chosen to co-anchor over so many other candidates?

"I assume it was based on a tangible piece of evidence -- the conversations Charles and I had on camera during the Iran crisis -- sometimes two or three times per day. It proved that we could work well together. I believe that if there had not been confidence in my performance at the State Department, if there had not been this sense of my journalistic capabilities, I would not be here."

Before joining CBS in 1978 Miss Sawyer assisted Richard Nixon on the writing of his memoirs. Before that, she had served on his staff in various capacities from 1970. That Nixon connection is almost always mentioned when Miss Sawyer is discussed. Does she believe ex-President Nixon was treated fairly by TV news?

"I think there were instances of unfairness -- I do believe that in some sense a double standard was at work on some narrow aspects of Watergate. But Mr. Nixon wouldn't argue, as I certainly wouldn't argue, that that was the cause of what happened. Generally speaking, given the complexity of the events and given the difficulty of getting accurate information, I think press coverage was not unfair."

What does Miss Sawyer think about expanding the evening news to an hour, as NBC is already trying to do?"

"I may be in the minority on this, but I think the function served by the 30 -minute newscast is useful, truncated though some of the stories may be, as much as we would like to expand them and give context to things. I don't think that the evening newscast should be denigrated as it stands now. There are a lot of people who don't want to spend an hour in front of the television set. At the same time, here I am with a 90-minute news show, so I can afford to say that. The luxury of being able to do a longer piece that illuminates an issue is really journalistically satisfying."

Does she see the Nixons socially?

"I have not seen him since I came up from Washington last week. But I have in the past come up to New York and had dinner with the Nixons occasionally."

Does she find him changed?

"Yes, in the sense that any president who becomes a former president changes, a priori. Needless to say, what happened was a shattering experience. He was amazingly self-disciplined through it all, after 1974. He really did maintain as much of a balance as possible and he was determined not to be mired in regrets. But it changed him."

Does Miss Sawyer believe President Nixon is a happy man now?

She thinks for a moment. "He would like to be playing a more active role in the party now. But he is very stimulated and he has a really insatiable thirst for information and for digesting information and for keeping up with events and staying alert. So he has not lost any of his incisiveness. And I believe that's one function of being happy."

Will Mr. Nixon be watching her on the morning news?

"I expect he will.Well, Mrs. Nixon watches TV and tells him when there is something interesting. It is hard to remember that is has been years since I worked for the President. I really feel I should be described by now as 'a CBS reporter' rather than as 'an ex-aide of ex-President Nixon.'"

Many would feel Miss Sawyer has a triple prejudice barrier to hurdle in being taken seriously in television news -- she is a woman, she is an attractive blond woman, and she has that Nixon connection which some people might consider a hindrance. How does she feel about that?

"I believe women have already established a place for themselves in TV news. It is conceivable that they wanted a woman. But I know they did not hire me because I was a blonde -- that perception about blondes exists now because you have Judy Woodruff, Lesley STahl, and Jessica savitch, all blondes and very visible. But there is a plethora of dark-haired female correspondents out there.

"Being a woman is not a terrible deterrent. Maybe you have to be a little more serious to make people certain that you are capable in a male-dominated domain.

"As to the Nixon connection, cbs has been completely fair and not allowed it to influence them. However, there are still people who think that in principle it is not a good idea for anyone to switch backa and forth between polilics and TV news. As a matter of fact, when I first started, it was agreed that I would not cover any Nixon stories. That was understandable."

Culture on cable

It's beginning to happen -- the free cultural programming on cable TV which has been promised for so long.

CBS Cable: Starting Monday, Oct. 12, and for the rest of the weekdays from 7: 30-10:30 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 8-11 p.m., this new free (to some basic systems) cultural service offers an amazing variety of "lively arts" programming. I have sampled the first night's offering and found it lives up to its advance publicity. Don't allow host Patrick Watson -- a bit too solemn and suave in his dinner jacket -- deter you from watching a splendid, varied evening of literate entertainment masquerading as "Culture," with a capital "C."

From its the determinedly on-target, no-compromise interview with violinist Isaac Stern, which opens the program, to Mike Nichol's adventures with horses for fun and profit, through an extraordinary original musical by Elizabeth Swados based on William Blake poetry, and A TV drama by John Osborne starring Sir Alec Guinness, the premiere night of CBS Cable is a triumph.

The rest of the week, which I have not yet seen, includes such items as Jane Alexander in "Calamity Jane's Diary," German filmmaker Werner Herzog's highly acclaimed but cryptic movie masterpiece "Aguirre: The Wrath of god" and the royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Macbeth," with Ian McKellen. I must admit I have not seen the commercials which will separate the various segments of the programming, so I cannot say how they will affect the overall tastefulness of the evening.

If your area is now serviced by a basic cable TV system, the CBS Cable channel can probably be aired on the system -- around 250 systems have already agreed to air it. The best way to make certain that you do receive it is to call your local system president and demand it. Otherwise you will be missing some landmark TV programming.

CBS Cable executives claim that this first week is only the beginning, with major cultural goodies to come in the fugute.

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