What Diane Sawyer Thinks of David Muir's 'World News' Success
by patrick pacheco
David Muir among the satellite dishes on the rooftop of ABC News headquarters in New York. “The energy of the city fuels me,” he says.
When David Muir was a 21-year-old news anchor in his hometown of Syracuse, New York, he frequently found himself frustrated as he worked the phones to get to the bottom of breaking stories. One day, a veteran newsman, overhearing his concerns, swung his chair around and offered some advice: “David, you have to go out there and get the story.”
“He was right,” recalls Muir. “We got into our little news cruiser and headed to the scene. It was a powerful lesson. Anywhere you go, you can find a story. It’s up to you to tell it well.”
For the last couple of decades, Muir has traveled the globe getting those stories and telling them well. He has covered everything from the famine in Somalia (where he faced gunfire) to the uprisings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Hurricane Katrina. But it’s not just the on-the-ground reporting that has made Muir, now 40, one of the fastest-rising stars of network news, widely viewed as the likely successor to Diane Sawyer on ABC World News during the week. He’s been a ratings magnet: World News Saturday just had its highest numbers in nine years, and 20/20—where he recently celebrated his first anniversary as cohost—is enjoying its highest viewership in four years. Sawyer attributes part of Muir’s success to his ability, whether he’s reporting from a small town in the USA or from an overseas refugee camp, to establish “an immediate, clear connection to head and heart.”
After Muir’s first full season as cohost of 20/20, the program is having its best viewership in four years.
That ability, along with a go-the-distance work ethic, has won him a shelf full of awards, which are displayed—amid the photos of hot spots around the world he’s reported from and family pictures—in his office at ABC News headquarters on the Upper West Side. On a Monday evening in late spring, Muir, dressed in black, talks about his career with self-deprecating modesty. He laughs when reminded of how the gossip website TMZ described him as the “Brad Pitt of news anchors” and recalls how his hero, Peter Jennings, had a similar glamorous moniker: “James Bond.” “I think I have to apologize to Brad Pitt, but Peter was James Bond,” he says, admiring Jennings’s worldliness and his tenacity in ferreting out a story with integrity.
While it’s been less than a decade since Jennings stepped down because of illness, the rise of social media makes it seem as if Muir now reports from a different planet. He not only has to compete against network peers, but also a cacophony of online news sites that can drive, often irresponsibly, the day’s top stories. Muir points to a desk monitor scrolling Twitter. “Peter didn’t have this in his office,” Muir says wryly. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. While I’m on the air, they can tweet me. I’ll often write back during a commercial break. We’re accessible, and that’s a great advantage.”
That accessibility also extends to the rich and varied life outside his window. “I have a lot of fun here; the energy of the city fuels me,” says Muir, who has lived in Lower Manhattan since he arrived here in 2000. “You go out for one evening and come back with 10 story ideas.”
Muir reporting from Tahrir Square.
The city’s news often resonates globally, but Muir says that in an era of information overload and a febrile 24-hour news cycle relentlessly following the latest on a missing jet or a sex scandal, the challenge is not to lose sight of the human-interest story. While his Sunday broadcast has attracted its largest overall audience in 11 years, Muir insists that the ratings didn’t come by focusing on lesser, eye-catching pieces. “I make sure there’s a balance,” he says. As he scans news outlets each morning, he looks for stories through the filtering question of “Can we have an impact?” That has been the case in drawing attention to the famine in Somalia—ABC News was the first to do so—as well as to products still manufactured domestically through his popular “Made in America” series.
Muir, who grew up in a small town upstate, says he’s been fascinated by broadcast journalism since the age of 12. He became a “kid intern” at a local TV station a year later, a position he held over the course of several summers. Upon graduating from Ithaca College, he was hired as an anchor and reporter for the evening news at the Syracuse station WTVH. After a stint with WCVB in Boston, ABC came calling with an offer to anchor World News Now. He was only 29.
With colleague Diane Sawyer at the World Trade Center site the day Osama bin Laden was killed.
While the ability to cast a wide net for stories and the doggedness to pursue them has served Muir well, he says that in an era when victims of tragic events are hounded by the media, having a sense of limits—knowing when to step forward, and back—may be the most valuable skill of all. He recalls covering the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina and passing New Orleans’s Morial Convention Center, a cynosure of suffering, with bodies lying on the street and no power or water. “I wanted to slouch down in my seat because I felt as though it was such an incredible invasion of their suffering,” he says. “There was one woman screaming, ‘We want help!’”
Muir sees his job as giving voice to that woman’s cry. As he travels the world covering events of unimaginable tragedy, he still finds it hard to reconcile the fact that once the story is in the can, he and his crew leave the misery they are documenting for the comforts of home. Raised Catholic, Muir says he can’t begin to question why these tragedies occur; instead he focuses on how people confronted with such suffering summon the strength to endure. “It’s very stark and it’s right in front of you,” he says, adding that what he can do is honor extraordinary resilience by bringing attention to it. “It’s moving—and humbling.”
photography by gregg delman; CHRISTINE ROMO/ABC (TAHRIR SQUARE); COURTESY OF ABC NEWS (SAWYER)
Gotham Magazine hosted its latest issue featuring the current cast of Saturday Night Live at the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, February 23.