WASHINGTON — Let us now defend Meredith Vieira. The talented correspondent on CBS News' "West 57th," is being pilloried, vilified and excoriated because she posed for sexy pictures in Esquire magazine.
The pictures are accompanied by a semi-facetious gush note which acclaims Vieira for her journalistic skills and professional prowess as well as for her appearance. It ends, jokingly, "Baby, baby, gimme some news!"
Who wrote that? Little ol' me. I thought people would sense its strain of parody. But I'm not here to defend myself. It's Vieira who's getting most of the flak, from pundits and nabobs and angered feminists, all over what she calls "those goofball pictures" in a magazine.
"I'm so confused by it all," says Vieira from her office in New York. "I don't really see what the big deal is. It was done totally in fun. It was a fantasy. I hoped people would react to it in the same way I did it."
But articles in Time and Newsweek, scolding newspaper columns and a segment on ABC's "Good Morning, America" have charged Vieira with setting back the cause of women in broadcast journalism by encouraging old-fashioned, sex-object stereotypes. The biggest photo among the three published shows only Vieira's lower half. Mainly her crossed legs.
This has set off a wave of tsk-tsk'ing.
"I've been in this business since 1976," Vieira says. "I think I'm doing a good job. I enjoy my work. But I am not totally defined by the word 'journalist.' I'm other things, too. The fact that I have legs doesn't make me less of a journalist.
"I would never purposely try to jeopardize my reputation. I thought my reputation was a given, not a precipice where I could suddenly fall one way or the other. There are things I could do to harm my reputation as a journalist--sleep with a source, or fake a story. But I don't think sitting there in a pink dress is one of them."
Vieira didn't know the crossed-legs shot would appear. She says she thought the photographer was aiming at her face. "But I'm a big girl, and I'm not going to turn around and blame them," Vieira says.
"By the way, I did have underwear on, and you can't see it. That's the amazing thing about that picture," she adds. Oh, such an outspoken young woman!
Vieira is married to Richard Cohen, recently ousted as political supervisor for CBS News after fights with anchor Dan Rather. Cohen was not upset about the photos, Vieira says, and thought the whole thing was funny.
Producers of "Good Morning, America" invited Vieira to appear on the program with Andrew Lack, executive producer of "West 57th." Both declined. Instead "GMA" had Andrea Mitchell of NBC News and Helen Gurley Brown, publisher of Cosmopolitan.
Mitchell said she would never pose for photos like the ones in the magazine. She has not been asked. Brown defended Vieira along with Diane Sawyer of "60 Minutes," who appeared in similarly provocative photos last year in Vanity Fair. When the Vieira photos appeared, Sawyer told friends she was glad the slings and arrows would be directed at someone else for a change.
Vieira does worry that her photo session could have repercussions for fellow women in TV news. Christine Craft, once fired from a TV station for her appearance, has detailed that kind of ordeal in a new book, "Too Old, Too Ugly, and Not Deferential to Men"--which is what her bosses at a Kansas City station told her a viewer survey revealed about her.
But Vieira does not feel she has been a traitor to her sex.
"I think of my position as feminist," she says. "I don't think that making it in this business means having to hide who you are. I think we have earned the right to play by our rules, not by some rules established by men.
"All my strengths--my major strengths as a reporter--are, I think, based on the fact that I am a woman. We're using our femininity all the time in the field. We do live in a sexist society, and that's the way it is; there are two sexes. You just deal with it."
Wags have suggested that after the Esquire shots, the next step would be for a TV newswoman to pose for Playboy or Penthouse. "Yes, I've heard that," says Vieira. "I said, 'They haven't called.' And then I started feeling insecure and wondering, 'Well, how come they didn't call?"'
Vieira was on Saturday night's edition of "West 57th" reporting on homeless children. Coming Vieira topics include animal-rights extremists and casino magnate Steve Wynn. If Vieira is to be judged by her work and not those goofball pictures, she is in no trouble at all.