The Liberated Look at PBS

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

In 1974, my first election night, I anchored the West. When they showed me the set the first time, it was built but not painted. Dick Salant, (then) president of CBS, said, “See, that’s where Roger will sit.” In front of his seat in black letters, it said MUDD. And he said, “That’s Dan’s seat,” and there was RATHER, etc. And then he said, “That’s your seat.” And of course it was, because it said FEMALE. . . . In 1974, (in the midst of) the women’s movement! Salant was just so horrified that he had it painted over immediately. That was the first time CBS ever had a woman in that circle.

--Lesley Stahl in a 1983 interview, the year she took over “Face the Nation.”

The circle is bigger now--at least on PBS.

For Public Broadcasting Service’s live coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings, there was an all-female cast: in the anchor booth, chief Washington correspondent Judy Woodruff as moderator; writer and television commentator Elizabeth Drew as analyst, and, on Capitol Hill, congressional correspondent Cokie Roberts.


Their strong presence was no summertime shower, suddenly felt and then gone. During the Reagan/Gorbachev summit, the women of “‘The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” were again at the PBS mikes. Woodruff followed the main story, Roberts handled the ramifications of Senate ratification of the Soviet-American treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles--and national correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault covered the sticky issue of human rights.

Not since Barbara Walters’ 18-month run as co-anchor on ABC-TV a decade ago has so much attention been focused on women TV journalists.

Public television’s Iran-Contra reporters got front-page attention, both for the story they were covering, and for the fact that they were covering it. For three months Woodruff, Roberts and Drew (who off-camera lay flat on a hospital bed with a bad back) unraveled the hearings’ complexities, garnering raves from a range of political columnists and TV critics, including William Buckley, Carl Bernstein and the Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg. The women were incisive--and competitive, but not with each other.

“I can’t claim that we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have three women?’ ” Robert MacNeil said in his New York office. “We don’t usually think that way.”

However, MacNeil said, the hiring of Hunter-Gault in 1978 was “a very conscious affirmative action. We looked at nine women, and Charlayne stood out. . . . The fact that she was black was a bonus that came with it,” MacNeil added, “because we needed that too.”

As a 19-year-old junior in 1961, Charlayne Hunter was herself the story, along with Hamilton Holmes, now an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta, when they integrated the University of Georgia under court order.

By the time Woodruff, who had covered Presidents Carter and Reagan at the White House for NBC for five years, came to MacNeil/Lehrer in 1983, it was “not a conscious decision to hire a female,” said MacNeil. “It was a decision to hire Judy Woodruff.” The change in attitude, he indicated, reflected changing times.

Both Woodruff in Washington and Hunter-Gault in New York anchor when either MacNeil or Lehrer is away. Roberts, whom MacNeil cites for “her wonderfully sort of astringent style,” has been reporting on National Public Radio for a decade. She added MacNeil/Lehrer to her repertoire 10 months ago.

Behind camera, deputy executive producer Linda Winslow is second in command at “MacNeil/Lehrer.” “I produce the daily show in the sense of executing it. Les (Crystal, executive producer) conceives it, and I get the trains to run on time.”

“Every place I’ve ever been, everything I’ve done has been . . . serious journalism,” New Yorker writer and author Elizabeth Drew, 52, said a decade ago. “That’s my line of work.”

One way or another, Hunter-Gault, Roberts and Woodruff echo that thought.

For Hunter-Gault, 45, who wrote for a black alternative paper in Atlanta and then for the New Yorker and the New York Times, her experience in Georgia “began to cement for me the kind of journalist I wanted to be. I wanted to be a serious journalist. Here I was involved in a serious issue. I spent as much of my time watching the journalists watch me as (anything else). But for the fact I was in the middle of something, I could have been covering it.”

She was sitting in her cluttered office at WNET in New York, the wall facing her desk filled with photographs of herself and such figures as Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. There are also photos of her daughter, Susan Stovall, 24, and her son, Chuma Gault, 15. Her husband, Ronald Gault, is an investment banker.

Hunter-Gault can’t stand stories without “a human dimension. I think all of my initial experience and background prepared me to see things differently, whether it was the arms control story, or human rights in the Soviet Union, South Africa or these poor young black girls who don’t have adequate prenatal care so their babies die.

“And the journalists that impressed me,” she said, “were people like Calvin Trillin. My phone would ring and it could be someone saying '(racial obscenity) go home.’ Sometimes it would be Trillin (then a correspondent for Time): ‘How’d you like a pastrami sandwich?’ I would go to class in the morning, and no matter what time I left he’d be there. I learned from him you can be compassionate and close, and yet not have that ability affect your being a good journalist.

“I look back over what I have done this past year and I’ve interviewed so many of the (Soviet) dissidents who came out. I had a real feel for the story,” Hunter-Gault said. Her wrap-up on the human rights issue had aired the night before. “It seems such a silly thing not to let people who want to leave, leave! I just found Gorbachev’s defense (to Tom Brokaw) surprisingly weak. . . .

“The interview I had with (recent emigrant Yuri) Orlov stands as one of the great ones, for me personally, and also it touched a lot of people in the audience,” she added. “He was speaking in Russian, and there was such a bond, such a connection there. Suddenly I start to think, ‘This is a very slight man, small, but he has such a kind face.’

“I knew people like him in the civil rights movement who went to jail for what they believed in. You bring all your background in with you and bring it into play. And this fits in with a lot of notions I have about representation in the media. And suddenly from somewhere in the back of my mind"--she clicked her fingers--"I just said, very simply, ‘What sustained you?’ . . .

“And he went into this most wonderful answer about how he managed. Sometimes we’re accused of being radio on television, of being talking heads. But I just don’t see how anything could have been more powerful.”

Women TV journalists, Hunter-Gault says, still have a long way to go. “You look at the weekend public affairs programs. Even on (PBS’) ‘Washington Week in Review,’ which I guess I shouldn’t say anything about. It troubles me that there’s an attitude about women. It’s rare to have more than one woman, you never have more than one black, and, God forbid, you should have two blacks or two women on a regular basis. Every man isn’t guilty of this, but they’ll ask a woman a question, and before she can finish answering, it’s like they’ve lost interest.”

Cokie Roberts experienced a bit of that attitude as recently as 11 days ago, as guest panelist the summit and presidential politics on “This Week With David Brinkley.” It took a while for her to get a verb, no less a sentence, in edgeways. Midway, Sam Donaldson and Roberts voiced-over each other; Donaldson won. Brinkley, Donaldson and George Will, the regulars on the program, tossed the conversational ball to one another with lots of Davids, Sams and Georges.

Finally Roberts scored as she said, “The treaty could be a problem for (Senate Minority Leader Bob) Dole because the people who turn out in Iowa caucuses are peace people in both parties.”

“In both parties?” Will asked pointedly.

“In both parties in Iowa,” Roberts emphasized.

The next day, Roberts reflected on the experience: “I did better by the end.”

Cokie Roberts recalled the mail she got from people who “never had the experience before of seeing a program where all the authorities were female. “It took some time to realize I shouldn’t be recapping what had happened or saying what the mood in the room was, but saying ‘Look!’ "--Roberts’ voice is no longer chatty--" 'the reason Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) is asking this question is because he was misled, and then he as one of the most respected people on the Hill went out and misled his colleagues on the basis of (White House) information. That’s something a member of Congress hates. I remember saying, ‘This is a man whose word is considered as solid as this (marble) column.’ ”

And the impact of the three PBS women? “Perhaps it’s like electing your first Catholic President,” Roberts replied. “Once you’ve done something the first time it becomes easier for everybody who comes along next.”

To hear Roberts, seriousness is determined not by the story you cover, but by how you cover it. The daughter of the late House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, who was killed in an airplane crash in Alaska in 1972, and Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.), she brings a certain depth to her work whatever the subject.

A graduate of Wellesley majoring in political science, Roberts, 43, began on the production side in television in New York and Los Angeles, following the career path of her husband Steven V. Roberts, now White House correspondent for the New York Times. In 1974 when he became New York Times bureau chief in Athens, Cokie (a derivative of Corinne) became a stringer for CBS. She learned Greek. When the family moved back to Washington, she got her job at National Public Radio “through the old girls’ network.”

“I did a lot of life-style --for want of a better word--stories,” Roberts noted. “At different times in your life you are interested in different things. It’s one of the reasons news organizations should have people of all sexes, ages and ethnic groups because they bring their own interests. At the time I was hired at NPR I had children who were 7 and 9. So I was writing about schools and all kinds of things that were concerns of my life and the lives of millions of other people. Then the ’78 (congressional) campaign came along, and there it was, stuff I’ve known all my life, so it became silly not to do it.

“This is a friendly place,” she said of Congress. “It’s beautiful, it’s historic, and if it is true that I have a bias, it’s a bias in favor of the institution.”

At the end of a long day, Roberts sat outside her tiny cubicle in the House radio/TV gallery. She had just traipsed from senator’s office to senator’s office, from House side to Senate side, from Majority Whip Alan Cranston’s (D-Calif.) to Minority Leader Dole’s campaign office downtown for her treaty story that would air two days later. She loves her beat.

“One of the things about covering Congress--what you’re really doing is covering the American people,” Roberts added. “It’s not just welfare reform bills you’re talking about, but what’s happening in the lives of women that requires them to go on welfare. Or why it is young people feel they are not as well off as their parents? They say, ‘It takes two of us working full time to live in a house smaller than the one I grew up in.’ ”

“Your access is fabulous. There are 535 people who basically want to talk to you. I always kid that you walk around this building with a microphone and use it as a weapon: ‘Down boy!’ ”

Coming to PBS at first seemed “like such a huge leap,” Judy Woodruff said, “because NBC had been for me like Mother Network. I didn’t move without NBC. When I went on a trip, I was in a cocoon. I had NBC baggage tags, NBC camera crews, NBC producers. In a way it was very comfortable, albeit challenging, competitive and all the rest. And the notion of after 8 1/2 years there, breaking free, was very unsettling,” said Woodruff, who was chief Washington correspondent for the “Today” show before moving to PBS and “MacNeil/Lehrer.”.

So why did she leave? Tapping knuckles on her desk for emphasis, keeping an eye on Cable News Network for summit news, Woodruff noted there was “an opportunity to do something entirely new in television journalism. Here for the first time somebody in this business was doing an hour of national evening news. And here I was involved on the ground floor of this whole new venture.

“I feel very strongly,” she continued, “that it is possible to do serious news and in-depth news without getting so caught up in what you’re doing that there’s tunnel vision; to do serious stuff, to do longer pieces, to do more live interviews. I knew--we all knew--it was a risk, an hour program, but I also liked the idea of being involved in a challenge.”

In November, 1983, three months after coming to PBS, Woodruff also took over anchoring “Frontline” following the death of Jessica Savitch.

A graduate of Duke University, majoring in political science, Woodruff started out as a secretary at the local ABC affiliate in Atlanta. She later learned that the news manager had liked her legs. In 1970 she left because she didn’t want to be the weekend weather girl. “I wanted to do serious news.” At the local CBS affiliate she replaced the token woman reporter, but when the reporter who covered the state legislature got sick, she took over his beat and began covering Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial campaign.

In 1975 she moved to NBC’s Atlanta bureau, covering stories, as she wrote in her autobiography, “that ranged from Statehouse politics to red ant plagues.” She began persuading the network to let her cover Carter’s fledgling presidential run. But in mid-1976 she was taken off the campaign trail. She was told that her voice lacked authority. “You talk as though you were telling us about a ladies’ tea,” a network vice president told her.

Today she sees that as merely “an excuse, a convenient thing to tell a woman” when the real reason was that she simply lacked seniority. She was allowed to be the third person on the network’s Carter campaign roster and during the transition broke several Cabinet stories, including the pending appointment of Griffin Bell as U.S. attorney general. Two days before Christmas, Woodruff was told to pack and cover the White House.

Politics is her metier, as it is that of her husband Albert R. Hunt, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. They met covering Carter and have two sons, ages 6 and 1.

“I love the uncertainty of politics,” Woodruff said, “the unpredictability, the horse-race aspect, but most of all I love the interplay of ideas, and I love the degree to which we as journalists are able to learn about each politician’s or candidate’s personalities, beliefs, character, record. . . . And I also love the study of power, how decisions are made.

“In some ways we’ve come a long way,” Woodruff said of women in television. “We’re on all the morning shows. It’s obligatory that you have a woman co-anchoring a morning show. We’re everywhere. Diane (Sawyer) is anchoring ’60 Minutes.’ Lesley (Stahl) has her own show, and there are more women behind the scenes. We have more women camera operators, more women editors, producers at the field-producer level.

“Where we have not come very far is in management--people who make the decisions about what stories get on the air, who gets on the air, for how long, all those critical decisions that determine how we do our business. And by the way, I don’t think we’re that much different from the rest of society.”

In the back of her mind, Judy Woodruff is still toying with an idea she had when she first came to PBS: another Sunday public affairs talk show, on which most of the guests would be women. At least that, she hinted, might offer a measure of power.

With the release this week of James L. Brooks’ movie “Broadcast News,” the question of being female--and smart-- in television is once again confronted. At one point, in Holly Hunter’s portrayal of network news producer Jane Craig, she’s rhetorically jabbed with, “It must be nice to think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Craig tightens: “No, it’s awful.” With the women of PBS still visible, perhaps the point won’t be lost.