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Murphy Brown Called Before Senate Panel : Television: Tonight’s episode resembles NPR reporter Nina Totenberg’s actual predicament: Facing a Senate probe of a leaked confidential report. It’s no accident.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Life imitates art on TV from time to time, but perhaps never so closely as it does on tonight’s “Murphy Brown” episode, in which Candice Bergen’s character faces a U.S. Senate committee that is investigating a leaked confidential Senate report.

This morning, a real-life broadcast reporter--National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg--was scheduled to face a Senate special counsel who really is investigating a leaked confidential Senate report.

In the CBS episode, dubbed “Send in the Clowns,” TV journalist Murphy (Candice Bergen) is called before a Senate committee probing the leak of a secret report on congressional junkets and unpaid parking tickets.

In real life, Totenberg is one of two reporters (the other is Newsday’s Timothy Phelps) who broke the story Oct. 6 about Prof. Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against then-federal appellate Judge Clarence Thomas.

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Thomas was subsequently confirmed as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court despite Hill’s charges and an acrimonious televised hearing and debate over Thomas’ fitness to ascend to the high court. Nevertheless, Senate Democrats and Republicans joined together two months ago to put a stop to the leaks that result in revelations such as Totenberg’s and Phelps’. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Me.) and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), announced that the Senate would hire former New York prosecutor Peter F. Fleming as an independent counsel to discover the source of the Hill-Thomas leaks.

Fleming has already used his Senate subpoena power to try to force an answer from Phelps. The newspaper reporter refused on First Amendment grounds and, according to an NPR spokeswoman, so will Totenberg.

“We had no idea (that the “Murphy Brown” episode) was scheduled,” the spokeswoman said. “That is really unbelievable.”

At one point in the episode, as Murphy is entering the Senate hearing room, producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) rebukes the pregnant newswoman for sarcastically asking an aide outside the hearing room if the senators sold “Anita Hill activewear.”

Inside the hearing room, she is confronted by an array of senatorial caricatures, including a Southern senator who listens to her impassioned statement that, without leaks, Americans would never have learned about Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair or the savings-and-loan scandal.

“So?” the senator asks with a shrug.

The timing of the episode has turned out to be almost perfect, but it was not entirely an accident, according to Diane English, the show’s creator and co-executive producer. “There is no such thing as a coincidence on ‘Murphy Brown,’ ” she said.

English and her staff began working on the episode two months ago, patterning the character’s situation on that of Totenberg. “We were all riveted by the Thomas-Hill hearings and it was great to be able to satirize them and the senators themselves,” she said.

But English had more than humor on her mind. “These hearings are not really about stopping leaks,” she said. “The Senate certainly knows that reporters are not going to reveal their sources and still they do this. As more of our freedoms dwindle, we need to use our freedom as writers to make people know what’s going on. And we also have to make it funny.”

Before assigning the script to writer Peter Tolin, English called “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt and asked for the name of a First Amendment expert. Hewitt steered her to well-known New York civil liberties attorney Floyd Abrams, who spelled out for English what he thought would happen if Totenberg were called before a Senate committee.

Abrams later became Totenberg’s attorney--a fact that English and Abrams maintain was coincidental.

“I’m sure they (“Murphy Brown’s” producers) didn’t know when it (the episode) would air,” said Abrams. “Diane English did call to ask me when Nina would be testifying, if she did have to testify, and I said sometime in February. But there’s no way they could have known the exact date.”

Originally, Abrams had asked to have Totenberg testify Feb. 5, but that date was not good for Fleming. Fleming asked to reschedule to Tuesday, but Abrams said that he had to be in New York to appear on an unrelated appeals matter.

They finally settled on today at 10 a.m. EST, 11 hours before Murphy Brown is scheduled (on the East Coast) to appear before her fictional Senate committee. (The show airs here at 9 p.m. on Channels 2 and 8.)


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