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‘INCREDIBLY POOR TASTE’ : SUGGESTION TO EMBRACE PUTS GEORGE ON HOT SEAT

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Collectors of idiotic remarks made by Phyllis George on “The CBS Morning News” hit a bonanza Wednesday morning when George asked Gary Dotson, freed after six years on a rape charge, and Cathleen Webb, the victim who now says the rape never occurred, to hug each other. The request, at the end of a bubbly George interview, lit up CBS switchboards in New York and Washington with calls from offended viewers.

It seemed yet another black mark for the “Morning News,” a poorly rated program whose latest in a long series of revampings installed the personable but klutzy George in the co-anchor seat last January. Bill Kurtis, her partner on the air, has several times hinted he is anxious to leave the program. Some CBS insiders now predict he may not even stay through the summer.

CBS correspondents say privately that George has become an enormous embarrassment and that the hug session took the cake. At the end of the interview, George asked Dotson and Webb to shake hands, as if they had just settled a minor tiff. When they hesitantly complied, George said, “How about a hug?”

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They declined.

“Incredibly poor taste,” groaned a source at another network. “Another entry to add to the laundry list of Phyllis George gaffes.” A colleague said, “It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

Steve Friedman, executive producer of the NBC “Today” show, said he was too busy to have seen the interview but was apprised of it later. All he would say about the “Morning News” is, “I hope those people stay, and do exactly what they’re doing,” since they have given him few worries about competition.

Phyllis McGrady, executive producer of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the top-rated of the three morning programs, said she did not want to be critical of George but said of the “hug” request, “I’m surprised she asked that.”

All three programs booked Dotson and Webb for appearances Wednesday morning. “Today,” which broke the story of Webb’s decision to recant her tale of having been raped by Dotson, aired the first interview.

Illinois Gov. James Thompson earlier this week communed Dotson’s sentence even while expressing faith that the jury’s original verdict of guilty was correct.

It is all but inevitable that TV will turn a story like this into media monkeyshines. Bookers for all three morning programs scrambled frantically to make sure they would be able to deliver Dotson and Webb even though “Morning News” executive producer Jon Katz claimed in an interview prior to the broadcast that he was no longer very interested in the story and thought that the street violence in Philadelphia was “much more important.”

Katz was hospitalized with a lung infection and could not be reached for comment, CBS News spokesman Ann Morfogen said from New York.

Asked for her reaction to the George interview, Morfogen said, “Well, you know Phyllis!” and added that she thought the interview had gone very well up to the hug point. “Phyllis was just trying to help them relax and bring them out,” Morfogen said in George’s defense. Of the hug remark, Morfogen said, “It’s unfortunate that that had to be the end of what was otherwise a much better interview” than those on the other two networks.

George herself did not respond to inquiries.

Perhaps George’s line of questioning would have seemed less objectionable if she hadn’t been so giggly asking some of the questions. She told Dotson, “I read this morning that you’ve had 41 television offers to put this into a movie. Is that right? Do you feel like a celebrity?” She had a big grin on her face through all of this.

When Dotson said he’d had “offers” of jobs, now that he is out of prison, George jovially asked, “Starring in your own movie?” Said Dotson, “No.”

Perhaps only Phyllis George would see this bizarre rape case as a story about celebrityhood. What she proved again, this time painfully, is that she herself is much more the professional celebrity than the professional journalist.


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