Diane Sawyer: When Words Fail Her

Diane Sawyer has a problem: her scripts.

As anchor of ABC’s “World News,” she reads about six minutes’ worth of scripts every weeknight. Listen to a few:

“Good evening. There is a kind of collision course in the Gulf of Mexico tonight. Tropical Storm Alex, almost hurricane strength, is barreling toward south Texas.” (June 29.) A kind of collision course? What kind of collision course is that? What kind of writing is that? A storm can’t collide with a coast: only moving objects collide.

And grammarians say that when kind of and sort of are used to mean somewhat they’re unacceptable. Also, there is, there are and it is are all weak ways to start a story or a sentence. There are exceptions, of course. But is and are express no action.

Along with what’s scripted, Sawyer has another problem: the unscripted.

When Hurricane Earl belted the East Coast recently, Sawyer was found slipping on the job. The ABC weatherman, Sam Champion, had said, “100 miles from the eye are hurricane-force winds…” (Sept. 1.) And he spoke of 30-foot waves. Maybe Sawyer wanted to reinforce what he was saying by repeating it—like a kindergarten teacher–or was just poking her oar into his boat. She chimed right in—and got it wrong: “30-foot waves. And again, you said 100 feet [feet!] from the eye of the storm, you’ll still get hurricane winds?” Champion ignored her fumble and replied discreetly, “100 miles, that’s right, from the eye of that storm.”

Another unfortunate Sawyer script:

“And now we want to show you the latest accomplishment from [by!] a man whose mind has amazed us time and again. [When? Where? How?] He has Asperger’s syndrome. His brain is simply acrobatic. Our Nick Watt watched him learn an impossible new language [Icelandic] at impossible speed [one week].”

Then the mental marvel, Daniel Tammet, was shown performing on TV in Iceland, Sawyer exclaimed: “Unbelievable. How do you say ‘wow’ in Icelandic? And you can see more of Daniel Tammet’s amazing abilities, along with other people capable of things you do not believe is possible [isn’t they?]—tonight on a special ‘20/20.'” (June 1.)

But six days later, a blog, “TVNewser,” reported that “20/20” had recycled the footage of Tammet from a 2004 British documentary, “Brainman.” “TVNewser” then quoted a statement made that day by “20/20”: “ABC News should have cited the documentary and made clear when it was recorded. We apologize for the errors.” Errors? How about misrepresentations?

The “TVNewser” article, written by Alex Weprin, credited the Australian Broadcasting Corp. with breaking the story. Its “Media Watch” had quoted the producer of “Brainman” as saying the “20/20” report was a “gross distortion of facts.”

I know of no one who suggests that Sawyer was aware of the Tammet story’s provenance and of ABC’s “errors.” But Sawyer has broadcast a raft of errors. Even if her faulty scripts were written by someone else, she has read them on the air, thus giving them her imprimatur.

A grammatical error: “And we turn next to court hearings today in a story you think you only see in the movies.” (Sept. 27.) Only in that sentence is a misplaced modifier. The sentence should read, “you see only in the movies.” That’s not Sawyer’s only mistake:

“The final report was in today about that drama that caused the beer summit at the White House.” (June 30.) No one causes a summit. And those two that’s are too close to each other; change the first that to the.

Wrong word: “Emboldened by a judge’s rebuke of that law yesterday, hundreds of opponents of the crackdown took to the streets today.” (July 29.) Rebuke means scold or reprimand. A person or a group can be rebuked, but not a law. Emboldened isn’t a word to start a sentence with. Or even use. Better: “Opponents of the crackdown were energized by a judge’s ruling—and took to the streets today.”

Another wrong word, this time in a story about Iran: “You’ll remember one young woman became the symbol for the revolt when she was shot dead by government forces.” (June 21.) The demonstrations by the reformist Green Movement weren’t a revolt. They were street protests.

Sawyer also said, “He pled not guilty to all six counts.” (Aug. 30.) The past tense of plead is pleaded, not pled. Stylebooks of The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post almost plead with staff members, Do not use pled.

“And now,” said Sawyer, “the second part of the ‘World News’ investigation we first brought you last night about young American teenage girls in Portland, Oregon…” (Sept. 23.) The writing is clumsy. Did Sawyer bring us the second part of the investigation last night? That’s what she said. Young…teens? In contrast to old teens? Is that a story worthy of network coverage? Now if ABC could find a city that has no child prostitutes, that might be worth a story.

After a correspondent reported on Greece’s use of “Google Earth” to find pools whose owners had not paid taxes on them, Sawyer said, “While the rest of us bite our nails about the world economy.” Huh? As we used to say when someone said something irrelevant or incongruous, “What’s that got to do with the price of rice in China?” Besides, we don’t all bite our nails. And the reference to nail biting is a cliché.

Sawyer has latched onto two words that she must think will hold the attention of viewers: startling and stunning. She used startling and staggering for the same story. Then, in reporting that story, ABC’s senior health and medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser, used alarming (April 26). On another evening, she used stunning twice, both in relation to the same story (July 27). ABC correspondents also toss in those flashy adjectives.

Sawyer began a story this way:

“As we told you last night, the fishing waters of the Gulf are reopening, the surface oil fading. But is there oil in the creatures underneath?” (July 30.) Awkward. If you told us last night, why are you telling us again tonight? And telling us that before telling us what’s new? In the world of broadcast news, yesterday is history.

When George Stephanopoulos sat in for Sawyer he said, “The war crimes trial of Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, has become something of a Star Chamber.” (Aug. 9.) Something of a Star Chamber? It’s nothing of a Star Chamber.

The Star Chamber was a notorious court in England abolished in 1641. At various times, its proceedings were arbitrary, closed to the public and tolerated torture to extract confessions.

Taylor is being tried by the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. The open trial is being held at The Hague, in the Netherlands; unlike defendants in the Star Chamber, those in the Special Court have the right of appeal. And as far as I can tell, no one there has complained of torture.

On Sawyer’s watch, ABC correspondents have also contributed to the stack of World News‘s quirky and faulty scripts. A few more fumbles:

“Yeah, Diane, it is a welcome gesture from B-P, but I have to be honest with you. It dwarfs what B-P owes the people of the Gulf…” (David Muir, June 8.) Whenever someone says, “to be honest with you,” I wonder, Haven’t you been honest with me until now?

On World News Saturday, which Muir anchors, a correspondent at the Gulf of Mexico said many local officials had seen no BP cleanup crews—but when President Obama arrived, several hundred cleanup workers showed up. Which led Muir to say, out of the blue, “All right. Keeping them honest, Matt.” (May 29.) What does that mean? Keeping whom honest? How? How can you tell they’re honest? Were they previously dishonest?

When Muir sat in for Sawyer on July 2, a correspondent at the Gulf told of economic problems. Muir’s tag: “Feel so badly for those business owners.” ABC News should feel bad that no one caught the grammatical error.

Another Muir mini-editorial: A correspondent said a policeman who acted quickly when a man tried to set off a bomb in Times Square would be honored at a dinner with the mayor of New York City. To which Muir added, “As he should be.” (May 2.) Let’s just stick to the facts.

Muir scored (or lost) points in ABC’s intramural competition on July 30 when he responded to a question from Sawyer: “Great question, Diane.”

When the correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi was at the Gulf of Mexico, she reported on the skipper of a charter fishing boat: “Yesterday morning, the father of four walked into the boat’s wheelhouse and shot himself.” (June 24.) Neither she nor Sawyer said whether he was slightly wounded or what. Fact is, he was shot dead.

In another piece, Alfonsi said, “Chris Smith wrote the cover story on Stewart for this month’s ‘New York’ magazine.” (Sept. 17.) Wouldn’t you think someone on the “World News” staff, based in New York City, would know that the magazine is a weekly?

Another correspondent, Neal Karlinsky, said, “Their fellow neighbors call them heroes…” (Sept. 14.) Fellow neighbors? Redundant.

The “World News” correspondent Pierre Thomas said a rape victim’s story “is going to make you angry.” (Sept. 14.) Don’t tell me what’s going to make me angry. I’ll tell you what makes me angry: scripts that predict my reaction.

Someone who should get angry over all those flawed newscasts: Diane Sawyer. As the anchor presiding over the newscasts, she has to take the rap. So she has good reason to be angry.

© Mervin Block 2010