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Deborah Norville Gives Us the ‘Inside’ Story

Stop the presses! Deborah Norville, onetime host of NBC’s “Today” show and most recently a correspondent for CBS News, hasn’t gone tabloid. Her new job as host of the syndicated “Inside Edition” hasn’t compromised her journalistic credentials, as some TV critics and former colleagues have chided. She hasn’t turned sleazy, hasn’t become part of a “12-fanged monster” determined to do nothing but titillate and trash up the airwaves with its tawdry yarns.

Or so she says.

Perhaps her toughest challenge is not the interviewing, the fact-checking, the rationalizing the fact that her program pays cash for interviews; it’s not balancing her full-time job with marriage and two small sons. Her biggest obstacle is probably as imposing as her efforts a few years back to persuade a hostile TV audience that she wasn’t the younger, prettier other woman who schemed to push Jane Pauley off “Today.”

Her big headache these days is convincing potential interviewees (and viewers) that “Inside Edition” is, she said, “not like the other shows that are considered our brethren.”

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“We are a legitimate news program,” Norville, 36, said in an interview, listing several investigative pieces the show has produced, including the first TV report on fatally faulty rear-door latches in Chrysler minivans and a follow-up on similar problems with the replacements.

“People attach the label tabloid to ‘Inside Edition’ and the others. That we’ll all just throw anything on television. But that isn’t true.” At “Inside Edition,” she says, she and colleagues “check out and verify every scrap of information that we include in a story; we have standards that are as strict as at the networks.”

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Still, aside from a daily dose of O.J. Simpson, much of the Norville-powered broadcasts consist of light stories on actors or models, many without comments from the stars themselves, relying instead on paparazzi video and the opinions of gossipy observers.

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She joined “Inside Edition” (weeknights at 7 on KCAL-TV Channel 9) last month, and the show has enjoyed modestly swelling ratings since. She aims not only to distinguish the program from the other, louder syndicated reality shows but also to prove that what gets on the air on “Inside Edition” isn’t much different from what’s on the network newsmagazines.

After announcing that she was going to the show, another reporter asked her, “What are you going to do when you have to do a story on the priest who’s having sex?”

“I did that story two years ago at CBS,” Norville told him. “A good story is a good story. Journalistically, we’re not different here than at CBS. My work won’t change. My standards won’t change.”

The networks have changed since Norville first arrived at NBC in 1987, she said, becoming more and more a business with many compromises of pure journalistic values. True, “Inside Edition,” pays money for interviews. But the networks, while not shelling out actual cash, have been engaged in a “bidding war” with each other and the tabloids to score exclusives. During the Simpson saga last summer, Norville said, she lost one interview when a network offered the interviewee a trip to a foreign country.

But some don’t see it that way. Norville slammed the TV tabloids and what she called their collective dishonesty in a 1993 appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show,” although she now says she was mistaken, at least about her own show. And critic Tom Shales recently wrote in the Washington Post that Norville “had traded in her credentials as a journalist for good.”

“I never knew my credibility was a result of having the CBS or NBC logo on my paycheck,” Norville responded. “I thought it came from my work. The credibility I bring to this show, I think, will change the image of the program in the minds of some of those doubting Thomases. And to the critics who say I’ve diminished myself: Let me be on the show for a while, and then tell me if I’ve done that.”

Norville conceded that she probably has less reverence for the hallowed reputation of the network news departments than do many others, as a result of her “nightmarish” experience at NBC, where she once earned $1 million a year. Her career was “torpedoed” there, she said, when she was blamed in the Pauley scenario for decisions made by her bosses. Many people, including her, thought she would never return to TV when she left NBC on maternity leave in 1991.

After the birth of her first son, she became host of an ABC radio talk show that she broadcast out of her home. CBS then hired her as a reporter in 1992, and she anchored a short-lived prime-time magazine show last summer called “America Tonight.” She also filled in as network news anchor on the weekends. Although she loved her work at CBS, Norville said, she didn’t have enough to do. For months, she said, she was mostly frustrated, collecting but not earning her paychecks.

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The seeming precariousness of the network news business--she pointed out that Connie Chung’s prime-time show is currently in trouble--and the travel demands of a network correspondent made her long for a job that would mesh with a home life that includes a husband, a 4-year-old son and an infant boy born in December. “Inside Edition” allows her to stay fixed primarily in New York, letting her get home each night for dinner.

“A lot of those people who want to pooh-pooh my leaving the network haven’t looked at it from the inside,” she said. “Connie Chung’s show might not be on the air any longer. And what good is it to be a network journalist if you have no place to share your stories? I enjoy being a working reporter. At CBS, I used to laugh that I hadn’t been on television for a while and I really should be on television, so I’d scramble over and sit on top of the television. And we’d get a chuckle and then I’d go back to my desk and twiddle my thumbs. Why wouldn’t I want to go somewhere where I could get my pieces seen while applying the same journalistic standards?”

Norville conceded that “Inside Edition’s” coverage of celebrities and some events or newsmakers needs to rise to the level of the investigations. As she works the phone trying to persuade potential interviewees to trust her--she mentioned Julia Roberts and Hillary Rodham Clinton as subjects she’d eventually like to land--that process has begun. Much of it is in her hands, in her amiable Georgia-girl eloquence and the cachet of her network news resume.

Although she realizes it will take time and most likely a conspicuous commitment to a different kind of story and style to distinguish “Inside Edition” from its flashier competitors, she added that her show won’t neglect the world of fun and the idea of providing vicarious thrills for viewers who might never in their lives get to attend star-studded events.

“I also want people to know that life is inspiring, that it can be a touching, wonderful gift, so we do a story about a woman who was grossly overweight and didn’t think much of herself and then she had a little epiphany and got it together and ended up becoming Mrs. USA, a beauty queen. . . .

“And I want people to know that life is fun. It was fun seeing all those beautiful people at the Fashion Cafe. We didn’t do some smarmy expose about Claudia Schiffer having stolen the mashed-potato recipe. It was just fun to see what it’s like to be there. So I guess we are trying to fill a lot of missions.”

Her mission at “Inside Edition” is to win an Emmy--as she did twice at the networks--and thereby silence the show’s detractors. Although she expects to be doing this job for years, she has no doubt about her ability to go back to network news someday:

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“As long as the work I do continues to be the kind of work I’ve been associated with in the past, I don’t see that as a problem. All of those same people who said I’ve really burned my bridges this time also once said that I’d never work in television again. I’ve been written off before, and if these folks decide to write me off again, they will only be wrong for a second time.”


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