Weighed as a Future Anchor, Diane Sawyer Joins Toni Morrison's Million-Dollar Men's Club

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

If being sought after is a sign of equality, Diane Sawyer has just struck a formidable blow for women's rights. Not since Dan Rather was courted by rival news divisions in 1979 have the networks engaged in such frenetic bidding for big-ticket talent. Since CBS' contract with the 60 Minutes star was expiring at the end of the year, ABC and NBC, as well as CBS, swarmed over Sawyer like philatelists after the rarest stamp. At the end of public negotiations that seemed designed to raise the ante, the 41-year-old Sawyer decided to stay with CBS. But not before she had won an estimated $1.2 million annual salary over five years (up 50 percent from $800,000 a year) for her 60 Minutes gig, plus possibly hosting one of several proposed CBS shows, among them a revamped Eyewitness to History and a new version of Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person. Most important, Sawyer reportedly has been promised a shot at eventually co-anchoring The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. And why shouldn't Sister Sawyer be as authoritative as Uncle Walter or Brother Dan? "Women are an important economic and cultural force in this country," Sawyer says. "I think all women look forward to the day when there's a woman as co-anchor of the evening news."

Network executives take Sawyer seriously not because she's a woman but because she's one of the few TV journalists to have the necessary dial-stopping charisma. "Networks are willing to pay her a million dollars for the same reason that Reggie Jackson makes a million," says one network source. "She brings in the audience because she's enormously compelling to watch." When Sawyer co-anchored the CBS Morning News with Bill Kurtis from 1982 to 1984, one colleague says, "Everywhere we went, viewers wanted to know about her."

There's only one hitch: There's no room at the top for Sawyer. At least not right now. Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw—skilled and able-bodied gents all—aren't exactly eager to share their rarefied airspace with a co-of either sex. (When ABC hired Barbara Walters at a million-dollar salary to co-anchor the nightly news with Harry Reasoner in 1976, the shotgun marriage was disastrous in the ratings.) As soon as the rumor floated that ABC was considering pairing Sawyer with Jennings, ABC execs denied it. Ditto NBC. Which left all three networks offering Sawyer something that was the journalistic equivalent of a Joan Rivers slot—a "permanent guest host" to sub when the anchors were away.

The negotiations put Sawyer in an awkward position. Although she had campaigned publicly for the 60 Minutes job, which she landed in 1984, Sawyer was now loath to push hard for co-anchor. "Diane didn't ask to move her chair next to Dan's," says Richard Leibner, her agent (and, coincidentally, Rather's). Published reports that Rather exercised a contractual veto power against having a co-anchor "are a bum rap," says Sawyer, adding, "Dan's been a great friend of mine." Although Rather's contract does not expire for five years, it is possible—although not likely—that the network might consider bringing in Sawyer if Rather's ratings went down.

An extremely hard-working journalist who wears her intelligence as lightly as her golden-girl looks, Sawyer has won acceptance in the 60 Minutes club. "I would've hired her if her name was Tom Sawyer," insists 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, who can't understand why Sawyer would consider leaving the highly rated show for "being half an anchor." Yet, says Mike Wallace, "She's got to find her own voice on the show." While her best pieces have been features, adds Wallace, "she wants to do the news." Others reason that becoming an anchor is the logical extension of Sawyer's quick rise through CBS. A former Nixon press aide, she joined the network only eight years ago. "She's driven to succeed," says one colleague, "and now she's put the networks on notice that anchor is the job she wants."

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