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The Liberated Look at PBS

December 17, 1987|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

A graduate of Wellesley majoring in political science, Roberts, 43, began on the production side in television in New York and Los Angeles, following the career path of her husband Steven V. Roberts, now White House correspondent for the New York Times. In 1974 when he became New York Times bureau chief in Athens, Cokie (a derivative of Corinne) became a stringer for CBS. She learned Greek. When the family moved back to Washington, she got her job at National Public Radio "through the old girls' network."

"I did a lot of life-style --for want of a better word--stories," Roberts noted. "At different times in your life you are interested in different things. It's one of the reasons news organizations should have people of all sexes, ages and ethnic groups because they bring their own interests. At the time I was hired at NPR I had children who were 7 and 9. So I was writing about schools and all kinds of things that were concerns of my life and the lives of millions of other people. Then the '78 (congressional) campaign came along, and there it was, stuff I've known all my life, so it became silly not to do it.

"This is a friendly place," she said of Congress. "It's beautiful, it's historic, and if it is true that I have a bias, it's a bias in favor of the institution."

At the end of a long day, Roberts sat outside her tiny cubicle in the House radio/TV gallery. She had just traipsed from senator's office to senator's office, from House side to Senate side, from Majority Whip Alan Cranston's (D-Calif.) to Minority Leader Dole's campaign office downtown for her treaty story that would air two days later. She loves her beat.

"One of the things about covering Congress--what you're really doing is covering the American people," Roberts added. "It's not just welfare reform bills you're talking about, but what's happening in the lives of women that requires them to go on welfare. Or why it is young people feel they are not as well off as their parents? They say, 'It takes two of us working full time to live in a house smaller than the one I grew up in.' "

"Your access is fabulous. There are 535 people who basically want to talk to you. I always kid that you walk around this building with a microphone and use it as a weapon: 'Down boy!' "

Coming to PBS at first seemed "like such a huge leap," Judy Woodruff said, "because NBC had been for me like Mother Network. I didn't move without NBC. When I went on a trip, I was in a cocoon. I had NBC baggage tags, NBC camera crews, NBC producers. In a way it was very comfortable, albeit challenging, competitive and all the rest. And the notion of after 8 1/2 years there, breaking free, was very unsettling," said Woodruff, who was chief Washington correspondent for the "Today" show before moving to PBS and "MacNeil/Lehrer.".

So why did she leave? Tapping knuckles on her desk for emphasis, keeping an eye on Cable News Network for summit news, Woodruff noted there was "an opportunity to do something entirely new in television journalism. Here for the first time somebody in this business was doing an hour of national evening news. And here I was involved on the ground floor of this whole new venture.

"I feel very strongly," she continued, "that it is possible to do serious news and in-depth news without getting so caught up in what you're doing that there's tunnel vision; to do serious stuff, to do longer pieces, to do more live interviews. I knew--we all knew--it was a risk, an hour program, but I also liked the idea of being involved in a challenge."

In November, 1983, three months after coming to PBS, Woodruff also took over anchoring "Frontline" following the death of Jessica Savitch.

A graduate of Duke University, majoring in political science, Woodruff started out as a secretary at the local ABC affiliate in Atlanta. She later learned that the news manager had liked her legs. In 1970 she left because she didn't want to be the weekend weather girl. "I wanted to do serious news." At the local CBS affiliate she replaced the token woman reporter, but when the reporter who covered the state legislature got sick, she took over his beat and began covering Jimmy Carter's gubernatorial campaign.

In 1975 she moved to NBC's Atlanta bureau, covering stories, as she wrote in her autobiography, "that ranged from Statehouse politics to red ant plagues." She began persuading the network to let her cover Carter's fledgling presidential run. But in mid-1976 she was taken off the campaign trail. She was told that her voice lacked authority. "You talk as though you were telling us about a ladies' tea," a network vice president told her.

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