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TELEVISION : Time to Fine-Tune the Picture : Charlayne Hunter-Gault has some noted (and courageous) firsts to her credit and a host of awards. And although she is a woman who easily moves in many worlds, she says she has hit the glass ceiling at PBS.

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Calling all upper crusts.

“Mr. and Mrs. Oscar de la Renta and the Thirteen/WNET Gala Committee invite you to salute a cast of legendary talent,” said the invitation to a black-tie fund-raising dinner and dance at the Plaza on behalf of New York City’s high-profile public-television station earlier this summer.

Peter Duchin and his orchestra would provide the music for these society swells. Table cost: $1,000 to $25,000.

Studio photographs of the evening’s five “honorees” bannered the invitation below their names: Brooke Astor, a prominent philanthropist; Joan Ganz Cooney, head of Children’s Television Workshop, which begat “Sesame Street”; Beverly Sills, opera’s transcendent super-diva; Gay Vance, wife of former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

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Hunter-Gault: tall, stunning and adored.

Hunter-Gault, a featured reporter on that PBS flagship “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” and anchor of an underdog weekly public-TV series titled “Rights & Wrongs.”

Hunter-Gault, the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia, where some of the first words she heard were “Nigger, go home!” (She later recalled her response in a TV interview: “And I’m lookin’ for the nigger. Where’s the nigger? I know it’s not me, ‘cause I’m a queen.”)

Hunter-Gault, author of a big-selling memoir, “In My Place.” It recounts her youth in Covington, Ga., and Atlanta, when her icon was ivory-skinned, flame-maned comic-strip reporter Brenda Starr. Hunter-Gault became homecoming queen and a top student at her all-black high school and, after more than a year at Wayne State University in Detroit, she and classmate Hamilton Holmes were persuaded by civil rights leaders to break the University of Georgia’s color barrier. When a 1961 court order popped open the legal doors, the Old South’s first successful college desegregation was tumultuously under way.

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Yanked from obscurity, the two teen-agers initially faced walls of jeering, snarling segregationists, and their 2 1/2-year journey to graduation wasn’t easy. Among the few white students who befriended Hunter-Gault was Walter Stoval, her future husband. They amicably divorced after a few years of marriage, and Hunter-Gault now lives in New York with her second husband, investment banker Ronald Gault. Their son, Chuma, recently graduated from Emory University, and her daughter from the first marriage, Suesan Stoval, is a singer and actress in Los Angeles.

Hunter-Gault’s career has earned her awards galore and honorary doctorates from eight universities. A paparazzo’s banquet, her office’s bright white walls are a carpet-to-ceiling gallery of photographs of her with VIPs of enormous fame and clout: Hunter-Gault with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. With the President alone. With Nelson Mandela. With Jesse Jackson. With “60 Minutes” star Ed Bradley. With South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. With a former First Couple above the inscription: “To Charlayne Hunter-Gault, with best wishes, Barbara Bush, George Bush.”

On and on it goes. To Charlayne, with best wishes from everyone who’s anyone, including Bill Cosby, who threw a glittery bash in his home to celebrate the publication of “In My Place.” And there’s Hunter-Gault of the ordinary folk too, flattered on the streets by doting “MacNeil/Lehrer” viewers who cite stories she did weeks, months, even years ago.

Hunter-Gault, age 52 and looking 42 max, on her game, on her mark, aiming high, riding high, flying high.

“I’m soaring,” she said a few hours before attending the WNET gala on one of those liquefied muggy evenings that turn Manhattan into a concrete sauna.

“And I’m drowning at the same time.”

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Someone who has achieved so much . . . drowning? Her voice edged with frustration, she recrossed her long legs, leaned forward and unloaded:

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“Where do I go? I mean, where does someone like me now go? At a certain point, with this much time invested, I should have a series of my own where I make the decisions, where I decide what goes on the air. I’d like to be on the air every night. Like Charlie Rose--I could do that,” she said, referring to the host of a weeknight interview program on PBS.

Given the texture of her life and career, she could do many things.

Flashback.

She was the daughter of an Army chaplain who kept reminding her that her mind was first-rate, and of a mother who did most of the child-rearing because her husband was constantly traveling. But it was her grandmother who inadvertently sowed the seeds of Hunter-Gault the journalist.

“She read three newspapers a day, and sitting at her knee I would read the comic pages, and my favorite character was Brenda Starr. There she was, the center of attention in the newsroom, getting all the best assignments and all the wonderful romantic adventures.”

As Hunter-Gault grew older, Brenda still bloomed in her thoughts: “I just knew there was a universe of experiences out there that was different from what most black people had who were college graduates. If you were a woman, you became a teacher, you know, or if you were a man, you worked for the post office.”

Armed with her University of Georgia journalism degree, Hunter-Gault worked briefly as a Talk of the Town reporter for the New Yorker magazine and then as a reporter for a Washington TV station. She spent the next decade at the New York Times, at one point operating a one-person bureau in Harlem. In 1978, she joined the “MacNeil/Lehrer” program as a correspondent and backup anchor, ultimately becoming one of the program’s most visible and valuable components.

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Flash forward now to the 1990s, when Hunter-Gault’s career is at its zenith. Not everyone is a Hunter-Gault fan, however. At least one group of Jewish activists in the United States, for example, complained bitterly that her 1993 interviews with Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East were overwhelmingly pro-Arab. “Some of their criticisms were valid,” she acknowledged. “There were some facts in dispute.”

In contrast, though, comes the flood of accolades.

“The special skill she has is the ability to sit down with somebody and get them to talk,” said Washington-based “MacNeil/Lehrer” co-anchor Jim Lehrer. “She’s terrific at it.”

“She has a very good instinct for spotting the heart of a story in the field,” said Lester Crystal, “MacNeil/Lehrer’s” executive producer. “Flaws? I don’t talk about flaws.”

“She’s one of the most formidable field reporters in our industry,” said PBS journalist Bill Moyers.

“She’s such an imposing figure,” said Steve Futterman, an NBC/Mutual Radio reporter who was wowed by Hunter-Gault’s work in Saudi Arabia when he was there during the Gulf War. “She was always prepared, always seemed to know the answers to the questions she was asking. The generals were very impressed with her. And her reports from Iraq before the war were brilliant, very thorough. She cared more about the story than the sizzle.”

It’s that sizzle less Hunter-Gault--the never-glib, never-showy, low-decibel messenger--who is most visible on television. Her subtle intelligence and porch-swing Southern rhythms are in lock stride with the strolling pace that the “MacNeil/Lehrer” program uses to travel its journalistic high road.

But television viewers see only one side of her. “She’s very outgoing and loves parties, friends and laughing,” said Kathi Fern-Banks, a longtime friend, former classmate and sorority sister at Wayne State University. “I would have thought, prior to this job, she didn’t have a serious bone in her body.”

Said Rory O’Connor, co-executive producer of “Rights & Wrongs” (with Danny Schechter): “She can be very intellectual and very focused. But she also can be very spacey and earthy. She constantly surprises me. We were up at this college for her to get this award, and after she had given her speech to all these Irish Christians there, she came back at the end and started singing, ‘I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.’ ”

“She sings so badly, I get embarrassed for her,” Fern-Banks said with a laugh.

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It was a gregarious but intense Hunter-Gault--alternating flashes of laughter and down-home chattiness with glimmers of irritation--that emerged while evaluating her life and career during an interview in her large, blue-carpeted office at WNET, where New York portions of the program originate. Striking without makeup (she hadn’t anticipated a Times photographer), she was almost slinky-looking in her ankle-length dress. And she’d recently changed her hair, giving up the distinctive, snaky braids she’d worn for a year.

“I want to write this piece, ‘Reflections on a Year in Braids,’ ” she said. Although she mostly got favorable mail about the braids, some viewers wrote “the meanest” things. “What’s next, (anchor) Robert MacNeil with a ring in his nose?” asked one. “Why don’t you go back to the bush?” asked another.

The nastiness was a reminder that Hunter-Gault will always be defined by her race in some circles.

“I’ve always wanted to be assessed on the basis of my ability,” she said. “That’s why I’m so frustrated at always being identified as the first black woman to go to the University of Georgia. I wanted to be famous for the ability that I had. I had the raw material and then went on to the experience that would hone the raw material into something that was professionally good. I got my fingernails full of dirt in the real world of reporting.

“A consideration of this show when they chose a third correspondent to come on (with MacNeil and Lehrer) was that they wanted a woman, and it turned out that I was black, and that was fine too. But they couldn’t have hired just any black woman. There was an effort to match qualification with that. So I have all those things--qualified and a woman and black.

“And now, when I look at all that and look at where I am, and the way the world is changing, hear the rhetoric of station managers and news directors, especially in public television, which has always talked a good game--well, all I can say is that public television is resting on its past laurels. In the system’s prime hours, its principal (public-affairs) programs are anchored by white males.”

Responding from Washington to the charge of racial and gender monotony at PBS during peak viewing hours, Jennifer Lawson, the network’s executive vice president for national programming and promotion services, cited Hunter-Gault’s own presence as exemplifying “our commitment to diversity.”

Lawson, who is black, also mentions PBS appearances by black journalist Clarence Page, but he is a regular on “The McLaughlin Group,” which airs weekends, and only an occasional essayist on “MacNeil/Lehrer.” In addition, she mentioned David Suzuki, who hosted just one PBS series, the four-part “Secret of Life,” in 1993.

There are other narrow cracks in the white-male monolith. Former Newsweek reporter Margaret Warner is No. 3 anchor on the “MacNeil/Lehrer” program, succeeding Judy Woodruff in that high-visibility job a year ago. Woodruff hosts the PBS documentary series “Frontline.” And the host of the long-running “Tony Brown’s Journal,” which also airs weekends at off hours, is black.

All in all, as Hunter-Gault noted, this is meager diversity, making it clear that the public-affairs face of PBS remains predominantly white and male (from her colleagues MacNeil and Lehrer to Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Louis Rukeyser and Ken Bode).

“So if you have in your repertoire, in your stable, somebody who is different than that, and you are committed to diversity,” Hunter-Gault went on, “why is it I’ve reached the glass ceiling? Why is it that others who are not white and male can’t find some place in this universe of public television? All of the men who have these programs are people whose journalism I respect and admire, and they should have those spots. But are they saying in the end that there’s no room for anyone who’s different from them?”

A job that Hunter-Gault didn’t get at PBS was the one on “MacNeil/Lehrer” that Woodruff abandoned for CNN, creating the impression that Hunter-Gault was passed over in favor of Warner, whose on-camera work remains raw. “Charlayne was there, she was on the program, she didn’t get the gig,” said O’Connor, the “Rights & Wrongs” producer.

“I’m not sure I would have wanted it,” Hunter-Gault said. “I don’t want a desk job. What I want to do is be on the air more, doing what I do best.” “MacNeil/Lehrer” chief Crystal said that was his choice too, which is why he preferred her as a reporter instead of an anchor.

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The series that is Hunter-Gault’s own, in effect, is “Rights & Wrongs,” a refreshingly uncommon half-hour produced by Globalvision, whose earlier series “South Africa Now” was loudly lambasted by some conservative activists. Wearing a renegade’s mantle, the small, scrappy independent production company operates out of a modest suite of offices on the seventh floor of an unpretentious building only a 10-minute walk from the swankier WNET digs where “MacNeil/Lehrer” and its New York staff are headquartered.

Symbolically, though, “Rights & Wrongs” might as well be in Newark, if not Newfoundland, for despite Hunter-Gault’s tight fusion with the series and the comprehensive and incisive way it covers human rights globally, it has been jettisoned to the outback of public TV, having been rejected for national distribution by PBS since early 1993.

Although “MacNeil/Lehrer” is her main livelihood, Hunter-Gault is “Rights & Wrongs” to a large extent--anchoring, interviewing and recording voice-overs for the series, while also being its “super-editor” and providing star power when it comes to raising money to keep it breathing. Her own financial contribution was her acceptance of a 50% pay cut this year to help the struggling series remain upright.

“Journalism is her No. 1 value to us,” O’Connor said. “But Charlayne moves in so many worlds, from the streets of Harlem to the Council on Foreign Relations. She moves in high levels of black and white circles. She’s been to the White House three times for small dinners. She’s very well-connected. She and her husband know the highly placed African Americans in most corporations. So we can give Charlayne five names and phone numbers, and between 10 and noon she’ll make the calls.”

Yet even she has repeatedly slammed into brick walls while trying to induce her network to run her series, and those numerous PBS rejections are a gnawing irritation for the producers and Hunter-Gault.

“If Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the most experienced African American journalist, can’t get her own show on her own network--someone with her credibility, with her distinction, with her diversity, with her global awareness--who can get on?” co-executive producer Schechter wondered aloud.

“It’s unbelievable,” Hunter-Gault exclaimed about the PBS dismissal of “Rights & Wrongs,” which, though lacking elegance, offers the kind of laser-focused insights into human rights rarely available in mainstream TV. “Given the resources it has, this is a wonderful program,” she said. “But if it had more resources it could be a hell of a lot better. PBS could have said, ‘Look, we’d like to work with you. This is a wonderful vehicle for one of our major people in the system. We’d like to give you some support; here are the problems we have with it and the way we think they can be resolved.’ But no. Instead it was ‘We don’t like it. We don’t want a thing to do with it. Go away and don’t come back.’ ”

PBS executive Lawson put it more bureaucratically, contending as she had previously that human rights alone is “an insufficient organizing principle” for a PBS series. And as he had all along, Schechter mocked Lawson: “And cooking and stock tips are a sufficient organizing principle?”

Lawson faulted the show’s concept--covering countries “purely from a human-rights perspective"--as well as its execution, saying that the “MacNeil/Lehrer” program covers the same ground “with more flexibility.”

Thus, instead of getting PBS to beam “Rights & Wrongs” to its 346 member stations, Globalvision has had to peddle the series to traditionally timid PBS outlets individually, via the alternative American Program Service. The result? Only two dozen stations now carry the series, and most of those relegate it to relative obscurity, a la the 1:30 p.m. Saturday time slot it gets here on KCET-TV Channel 28.

And in what Hunter-Gault seems to regard as a personal affront, one of the balkers is WETA, the major Washington station where portions of “MacNeil/Lehrer” originate.

“I’m baffled,” she said, adding that the president of another big PBS station failed even to return her call when she phoned to make a personal plea to carry her show.

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When it comes to “MacNeil/Lehrer,” it’s her own drawn-out absences that increasingly concern Hunter-Gault. “I don’t want to be on every now and then,” she said. “I hate it when I walk out on the street that people say, ‘Oh, we haven’t seen you for a while. Have you been away?’ No, I haven’t been away. I’ve been waiting to get on the air.”

How often does she surface on “MacNeil/Lehrer”?

“Not enough,” she shot back like a comic batting a straight line for a grand slam. “I haven’t done anything for a week now. I haven’t done anything for today. I haven’t done anything for the rest of the week.”

Reporters always want more time or space, noted “MacNeil/Lehrer” chief Crystal, who joins others in praising the “conversations"--clusters of chats with individuals or groups on topical issues--that have become Hunter-Gault’s big, looping signature. “There are certain periods where Charlayne’s on a lot, like when she was in South Africa,” he said. “But you can’t be in the middle of a breaking story continually.”

Hunter-Gault is not easily mollified, and her ambition and appetite remain great. “I guess my problem is that I unapologetically want it all,” she said, “because I energetically worked for it.”

* “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” airs weekdays at 3 and 6:30 p.m.on KCET Channel 28 and at 7 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50. “Rights & Wrongs” airs Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. on Channel 28.


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