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The Liberated Look at PBS

December 17, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In 1974, my first election night, I anchored the West. When they showed me the set the first time, it was built but not painted. Dick Salant, (then) president of CBS, said, "See, that's where Roger will sit." In front of his seat in black letters, it said MUDD. And he said, "That's Dan's seat," and there was RATHER, etc. And then he said, "That's your seat." And of course it was, because it said FEMALE. . . . In 1974, (in the midst of) the women's movement! Salant was just so horrified that he had it painted over immediately. That was the first time CBS ever had a woman in that circle.

--Lesley Stahl in a 1983 interview, the year she took over "Face the Nation."

The circle is bigger now--at least on PBS.

For Public Broadcasting Service's live coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings, there was an all-female cast: in the anchor booth, chief Washington correspondent Judy Woodruff as moderator; writer and television commentator Elizabeth Drew as analyst, and, on Capitol Hill, congressional correspondent Cokie Roberts.

Their strong presence was no summertime shower, suddenly felt and then gone. During the Reagan/Gorbachev summit, the women of "'The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" were again at the PBS mikes. Woodruff followed the main story, Roberts handled the ramifications of Senate ratification of the Soviet-American treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles--and national correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault covered the sticky issue of human rights.

Not since Barbara Walters' 18-month run as co-anchor on ABC-TV a decade ago has so much attention been focused on women TV journalists.

Public television's Iran-Contra reporters got front-page attention, both for the story they were covering, and for the fact that they were covering it. For three months Woodruff, Roberts and Drew (who off-camera lay flat on a hospital bed with a bad back) unraveled the hearings' complexities, garnering raves from a range of political columnists and TV critics, including William Buckley, Carl Bernstein and the Los Angeles Times' Howard Rosenberg. The women were incisive--and competitive, but not with each other.

"I can't claim that we thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have three women?' " Robert MacNeil said in his New York office. "We don't usually think that way."

However, MacNeil said, the hiring of Hunter-Gault in 1978 was "a very conscious affirmative action. We looked at nine women, and Charlayne stood out. . . . The fact that she was black was a bonus that came with it," MacNeil added, "because we needed that too."

As a 19-year-old junior in 1961, Charlayne Hunter was herself the story, along with Hamilton Holmes, now an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta, when they integrated the University of Georgia under court order.

By the time Woodruff, who had covered Presidents Carter and Reagan at the White House for NBC for five years, came to MacNeil/Lehrer in 1983, it was "not a conscious decision to hire a female," said MacNeil. "It was a decision to hire Judy Woodruff." The change in attitude, he indicated, reflected changing times.

Both Woodruff in Washington and Hunter-Gault in New York anchor when either MacNeil or Lehrer is away. Roberts, whom MacNeil cites for "her wonderfully sort of astringent style," has been reporting on National Public Radio for a decade. She added MacNeil/Lehrer to her repertoire 10 months ago.

Behind camera, deputy executive producer Linda Winslow is second in command at "MacNeil/Lehrer." "I produce the daily show in the sense of executing it. Les (Crystal, executive producer) conceives it, and I get the trains to run on time."

"Every place I've ever been, everything I've done has been . . . serious journalism," New Yorker writer and author Elizabeth Drew, 52, said a decade ago. "That's my line of work."

One way or another, Hunter-Gault, Roberts and Woodruff echo that thought.

For Hunter-Gault, 45, who wrote for a black alternative paper in Atlanta and then for the New Yorker and the New York Times, her experience in Georgia "began to cement for me the kind of journalist I wanted to be. I wanted to be a serious journalist. Here I was involved in a serious issue. I spent as much of my time watching the journalists watch me as (anything else). But for the fact I was in the middle of something, I could have been covering it."

She was sitting in her cluttered office at WNET in New York, the wall facing her desk filled with photographs of herself and such figures as Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. There are also photos of her daughter, Susan Stovall, 24, and her son, Chuma Gault, 15. Her husband, Ronald Gault, is an investment banker.

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