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New 'Today' Dawns For Steinem

July 22, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

The New York Playboy Club where Gloria Steinem briefly worked as a cocktail waitress in 1963 is finis, kaput, no more. It and the ones in Chicago and Los Angeles closed in June. Hugh Hefner said they had become, well, dated.

But Steinem, who donned a bunny costume to write a story about life in Bunnyland and found it so demeaning to women that she became a leader in the feminist movement, still is very much around--as a journalist as well as an activist.

In the former capacity, she now is a contributing correspondent for NBC-TV's "Today." Since May, she has interviewed Cher, Robert Redford and Marlo Thomas, although on matters greater than their latest ventures in entertainment.

And, from Sept. 15 to 19, she will co-anchor the program, filling in for Jane Pauley, who is expecting a third child in late August and will be on maternity leave.

Co-anchoring "Today" is a far cry from the Steinem of nearly 20 years ago. She was making headway as journalist and activist then. But she didn't consider a TV career because "I was very scared of speaking in public."

Indeed, she would be booked on a show to publicize something she had written and then would get so nervous she would bow out at the last minute. "I was actually blacklisted on some shows," she said, laughing about it now.

That the co-founder and editor of Ms. magazine has gotten over her case of the TV dreads is largely due, she said, to her speeches for the women's movement, which greatly bolstered her confidence, although "nervousness sometimes does return, like malaria."

That she is on "Today" is due, she said, to the urgings of Carla Morgenstern, a former ABC-TV staffer who in 1984 worked for Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and now produces Steinem's taped "Today" interviews.

The arrangement is unique in that Morgenstern is not a "Today" staff producer. "It is unusual," Steinem said, "and I think it's one of the reasons for the show's success, because (executive producer) Steve Friedman is so flexible."

Isn't this akin to a free-lance reporter asking a magazine to let his or her own editor edit the scribe's proposed article?

"Well, I think it would be a bit more like a writer and a photographer coming together to the magazine and saying, 'We would like to do a feature that is both photographs and text,' " Steinem said.

Friedman said NBC News retains editorial control over Steinem's interviews and that "everything is shot by our crews and edited with our people in our place."

Steinem was asked if, because of her well-known advocacy of the feminist movement, the NBC legal staff was lurking about her work, wary of anything that might lead to a request for reply time under the Federal Communications Commission's fairness doctrine.

"No, and no one has ever raised that question. I am a journalist in this case. I'm not telling people what to respond; I'm asking questions. I started out as a journalist and now I'm doing journalism."

Her initial "Today" deal was for two interviews, with Cher up first on the subject of a woman raising children by herself, and then Redford on how one's experience can be used to help others, in his case his Sundance Institute for aspiring film makers.

Steinem said she recently signed to tape four more interviews, of which the Thomas two-part interview earlier this month was the first round. Steinem is considering other potential interviewees, but declined to name them.

"It depends on people's schedules, but I'm hoping that they (the interviews) will be political or other than show business."

They may be with people of conservative as well as liberal persuasion, she said, but "I don't really believe in those labels. I'm seeking out people who want to have something to say that is useful to viewers."

Before "Today," Steinem hosted an interview program for two years on what now is the Lifetime cable channel. She is working on a potential weekly syndicated video version of Ms. magazine. Perchance this means she has long-range ambitions to get into TV full-time?

"My ambition is to be able to choose the medium that's appropriate for the subject. Some subjects are better done in magazine articles, some are better done on television, and some are better done as fictional feature movies.

"Television has a great value because it exposes character as the printed page could never do. On the other hand, it's more difficult to get (on television) really complex information that you can preserve and study and clip."

"So it seems to me that we should not so much choose one medium over the other, but try to choose the medium that is appropriate for the particular subject."

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