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One woman with two big hats

Journalist or activist? Maria Shriver faces a delicate balancing act.

December 17, 2003|Paul Brownfield, Bob Baker and Patrick Day | Times Staff Writers

On Nov. 28, Maria Shriver slipped back into her anchor chair at NBC's "Dateline."

Less than two weeks later, she made a speech in which she derided legislators as children in need of a timeout, and then helped broker a behind-the-scenes state budget compromise.

For someone who was famous before she became a journalist, this juggling act may seem like part of a rich, exciting life. Others, though, see something wrong with this picture, at least down the road.

"We're a little in uncharted territory," said Thomas Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "We've never had a governor whose wife is a TV journalist."

Aly Colon, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism think tank, said NBC ought to be aggressively "transparent" about Shriver's role by releasing a statement specifying the kinds of stories she will and will not cover.

Neither Shriver nor her boss, NBC News President Neal Shapiro, could be reached for comment, but NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust said, "Maria and Neal are in talks about how we will go forward with her."

In October, Shapiro told The Times that once Shriver returned to work, the network would make sure she worked on no stories involving California politics or her husband. Shriver took a leave of absence during the campaign.

One NBC News insider, stressing that no decisions have been made, said that given how tricky even the first few weeks have proved, Shriver may go on another leave of absence until her husband's term ends.

Shriver is hardly the first broadcast journalist to juggle the ethics of journalism with the demands of public life. ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" host was formerly a high-ranking official in the Clinton White House, and ABC News personality Diane Sawyer was once a staffer in the Nixon White House. Donna Hanover hosted a program on Fox while she was married to then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (they've since divorced).

NBC insiders also note that Shriver has worked flexible, sometimes reduced, hours for the last few years, as a contributing anchor for "Dateline," and reporting eight to 10 stories per year. The last story she reported was on June 17, about Botox scandals in Hollywood. On May 4 she profiled Celine Dion. She doesn't have the profile at NBC News of Katie Couric or Tom Brokaw.

Even so, possible tensions between Shriver's roles emerged Saturday when The Times detailed the prominent backstage role she played last week in helping the governor get a fiscal plan before California voters, even though she's technically back at work at NBC.

Shriver, while clearly among many players involved, took part in a conference call with the governor and his advisors and attended meetings to hammer out a proposal. She also conferred with Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, on ways to break the deadlock.

"She was not involved in any governmental decisions," the governor's spokesman Rob Stutzman said late Monday. "The first lady has a traditional office, the office of special projects. In her capacity as first lady, she had a role in the inauguration and she passed out food at a food bank. The only consulting she does with the governor is as a confidante in their roles as husband and wife."

On Thursday, the new first lady spoke at a "Welcome to Sacramento" luncheon in her honor, in which she addressed the stalemate in the Capitol with the sound bite of a seasoned politico (and the mother of four): "I say, if some of these legislators were children, we'd give them a timeout," Shriver said.

At the same luncheon, Shriver told the 250 women gathered that when she walked back into the newsroom at NBC News, "all the guys and the girls came up, and they're like, 'Welcome back, girl, where you been, hanging out at some beach?' And for me, it was great. I felt relieved, I felt centered, I felt at home when I went back into the newsroom."

But some wonder how easily Shriver can maintain an appearance of objectivity as a member of the news media if she continues to be involved in the business of California.

Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, describes Shriver's position at "Dateline" as a "very slippery slope."

"There's an advocacy side to being a politician's wife and to be actively involved means that every single assignment has to be judged before she takes it on," he said. "This is where a sense of good ethics and good practices is extremely important for anyone who describes himself as a good journalist."

Schell said the public perception that the news could be biased is enough for Shriver to step down as a broadcaster. "She ought to make some clear statement about what she intends to do. It might behoove her to say, 'I'm now in the political realm,' and step out of her media role."

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