Steve Kroft, Diane Sawyer & Matt Lauer
Their styles are divergent -- Sawyer is empathetic, Kroft is dogged, Lauer is smooth -- but these interviewers representing the three major networks ultimately share a common goal: "Sometimes you think you know the story, but you go back and look again," says Sawyer. "It's about waking all of us up. That is the reason we do it." In the age of Facebook status updates and Twitter news feeds, these seasoned journalists still retain the power to spread a message more quickly than any other medium and remain loyal to the craft of story-telling, regardless of the subject, all while remaining fiercely competitive.
While ABC's World News anchor, who turns 66 on Dec. 22, has pursued little-told stories of poverty in Appalachia and the plight of children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, she also has landed some of the biggest gets of the year: Jaycee Dugard (the special attracted nearly 18 million viewers in July); Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (more than 13 million viewers); and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in his first interview since 2006. Sawyer describes her Rumsfeld sit-down as an "arm wrestle. He loves to see if he can unnerve and back you down." But Sawyer and her peers do not intimidate easily.
Lauer, the glue in NBC's Today ensemble, says "any topic is open," including Steven Tyler's struggles with substance abuse, Brad Pitt's feelings about ex-wife Jennifer Aniston and former Vice President Dick Cheney's defense of waterboarding.
"It's not the topic," he explains. "It's the tone. If you can make people comfortable and get them to trust you, then you can hit them hard on something."
Lauer's skills have earned him the respect of his competitors, and speculation has been mounting about his future on Today, the top-rated morning show for 16 years and a cash cow that generates half a billion dollars in ad revenue. CBS News chairman and 60 Minutes producer Jeff Fager recently told THR that he'd like to have Lauer on 60. ("It's very flattering," responds Lauer, who turns 54 on Dec. 30. "I'm a fan of the show.")
Kroft, 66, has taken on the mantle of the crusading correspondent at 60 Minutes, grilling Justice Department officials about the lack of prosecutions on Wall Street, gamely pursuing Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson and buttonholing Congress members (for a story about insider trading in Washington) at their weekly press briefings.
"I really had a lot of fun chasing the congressmen down," he laughs. "I got as angry as everybody else about this stuff. And I'm going to keep doing these stories."
Kroft also has become the president's de facto interviewer, sitting down with Barack Obama 12 times on 60 Minutes, beginning when he declared his candidacy, then again days after the mission that took out Osama bin Laden in May (14.1 million viewers watched) and most recently on the Dec. 11 edition of the broadcast, when Kroft pressed Obama on his record and his foundering approval ratings. Nearly 15 million viewers tuned in to that broadcast, making 60 Minutes the fourth-most-watched show of the week behind only NBC's Sunday Night Football, NBC's pregame show and CBS' Two and a Half Men.
A real sign of power? The president, says Kroft without a pause, "has never said no."
Photographed by Wesley Mann on Dec. 14 at Studio 450 in New York