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Lawmaker to News Anchor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When CBS announced last spring that it had hired Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) to co-anchor a Saturday morning news show, the reception from many reporters was, “How could you?”

“How can you make her an ‘anchor’ when she hasn’t put in any time in the news business, when she’s absolutely an amateur?” was the first question addressed to CBS News President Andrew Heyward by a local TV reporter at a press conference here.

The 39-year-old Molinari was surprised by the attacks. “I know that there are very legitimate questions about how I’m going to be an unbiased journalist,” says Molinari, who begins co-anchoring “CBS News Saturday Morning” with CBS correspondent Russ Mitchell this weekend. “But I find it somewhat ironic that the people who were accusing me of not being able to separate my emotions from my ability to deliver the news clearly could not separate their emotions when they were asking me questions. I’ve been a member of Congress for seven years--it isn’t as if I’ve just graduated from grammar school and have decided TV is something I want to do.”

In fact, of course, what troubles even critics who don’t want her job is that Molinari has just graduated from Congress and decided that TV is something she wants to do.

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The hiring of a prominent politician who gained fame for her keynote speech at the Republican National Convention last year is viewed by many media critics as a troubling example of a new TV trend in which once and possibly future political candidates--from conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to Democratic strategist George Stephanopolous--are being given high-profile jobs in network news.

“It’s not good for journalism to convey the message that there’s no difference between government and journalism,” says Lewis Wolfson, professor of communication at American University in Washington. “Susan Molinari is a partisan political animal--almost any issue she might talk about on TV could involve a potential conflict of interest.”

Unlike Buchanan, who has taken two leaves of absence from co-hosting CNN’s “Crossfire” to run for president, or Stephanopolous, who continues to advise President Clinton while being an analyst for ABC News, Molinari said that she has decided not to run for political office again.

“I had considered running for the U.S. Senate,” said Molinari, who also has been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor of New York. “But I think that it would be totally inappropriate for me to come to CBS with the idea of running for office again.” She resigned her New York congressional seat last month.

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Heyward acknowledges that there are risks to his decision to hire Molinari.

“If her performance is subpar, there will be the issue of our hiring someone who didn’t have experience as an anchor,” he said. “And if she is perceived as having a political agenda, we’ll obviously be criticized for that. But I believe that Susan is a natural for television, a woman whose intelligence and real-life experience will resonate with the women and young families we want to reach on Saturday morning. It’s up to us to convey that this is a new role and a new career for Susan.”

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Despite the controversy, Molinari’s celebrity already has paid off for CBS: Heyward said that the station clearances for the new show (reaching 85% of the country) were much higher than they would have been without her name attached to the program.

“CBS News Saturday Morning,” which will air 5-7 a.m. in Los Angeles, is intended as a competitor to the weekend “Today” show on NBC.

“We’re going to aim to be topical, with the news of the week and an interview with a newsmaker ahead of the Sunday morning talk shows,” Molinari said. “We’ll also have consumer information, medical and health updates and features that we hope will be helpful to families.”

Molinari--who is married to Rep. Bill Paxon, a Republican congressman from Buffalo, N.Y.--has an 18-month-old daughter, Susan Ruby. She hopes to bring her interest in parenting to the CBS show.

“When you wait till you’re 38 to have a child, as I did, and you go to your mother for advice, she may say to you, ‘It’s been a long time since I had a baby--you were in college when I was 38,’ ” Molinari said, laughing.

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On the subject of how she will deal with interviewing guests and reporting on stories involving Congress and politics, Molinari said that she would not hesitate to have her husband, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or other House leaders on “CBS News Saturday Morning,” although she added, “If there’s a detrimental story on someone who’s close to me, I might have to recuse myself from doing the interview.”

“It would be absurd for Susan not to talk about political stories,” Heyward said, “but we’re not going to put her in a position where she would be seen to be taking sides. . . . If her husband were to appear on the show, he would be interviewed by Russ Mitchell.”

Molinari, who was a communications major in college, was a frequent guest on network TV talk shows when she was in Congress and regularly debated Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on WCBS-TV in New York. At the Republican convention in San Diego last summer, she told Heyward that she would like to make a career change into television some day. He approached her about the Saturday show on Inauguration Day in Washington.

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Her reasons for making the change, Molinari said, were personal and political. “I’ve always thought that I would like to work in television, and I had reached the point where it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to go much higher in this conservative Congress,” she explained. “Also, I wanted to be able to spend more time with my daughter than my schedule in Congress allowed.”

Despite the criticism of her cross-over role, Molinari believes she brings some advantages to the job.

“Sometimes I watch journalists interviewing politicians on TV, and I’m thinking aloud, ‘Why don’t you ask this question?’ ” Molinari confided. “All good politicians have learned how to answer the question we want to answer. I can see that coming--I’ve done it myself.”

* “CBS News Saturday Morning” premieres at 5 a.m. Saturday on CBS (Channel 2).

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