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Shriver to Quit Job at NBC News

Governor's wife decides she can't maintain her journalistic credentials and still be an active first lady of California.

February 04, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen, Carla Hall and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Maria Shriver, trying to balance her roles as a television journalist and as active first lady of California, announced Tuesday that she was leaving her job at NBC News.

The announcement capped weeks of back-and-forth between the network and Shriver, who has been contributing anchor on the newsmagazine "Dateline," and came after three difficult months of juggling the unusual dual roles.

Shriver had grappled publicly and privately with being both a journalist and a political figure, describing herself as a "work in progress."

"I was in uncharted territory for a journalist," Shriver said in a statement released Tuesday. NBC said Shriver, who had talked to numerous colleagues in recent weeks about what she would do, would not otherwise comment.

"I have no doubt that I could report now and in the future for NBC News with total objectivity, independence and without conflict, as I have for the last 18 years," she added in her statement. But after "much soul searching" she decided it wasn't possible to maintain her journalistic credentials and still be an active first lady, she said, adding that it had become clear that "my journalistic integrity and that of NBC News will be constantly scrutinized."

Still to be determined is whether this decision will allow Shriver more time for her role as a key political advisor to her Republican husband, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He credited her with drawing Democratic and independent votes during the fall's recall election. The final agreement hammered out between NBC and Shriver leaves open the possibility that she could still appear on television.

Time permitting, she said in her statement, she will work on documentaries and special projects for NBC-owned cable channels or even the NBC network itself, just not under the NBC News banner. NBC has rights of first refusal on any projects, and if they are rejected, Shriver can take them to other cable channels or PBS, with the exception of rival cable news networks. One possible project relates to her children's books, the latest of which, on Alzheimer's, will be published in May.

In recent weeks, there has been talk among Schwarzenegger's political advisors that Shriver might campaign publicly for Propositions 57 and 58, the deficit bond issue and balanced budget amendment that will appear on the March 2 ballot. As of Tuesday, no campaign event for Shriver had been scheduled.

She raised eyebrows with her bosses and many media observers in December when a story in The Times reported on her prominent -- if behind-the-scenes -- role in securing an agreement on budget policy between Schwarzenegger and state legislative leaders. That deal allowed the governor to get the two propositions on the ballot. Also in December, Shriver gave a speech in Sacramento in which she compared the behavior of state legislators with that of children.

Despite her close ties to top NBC News figures, including "Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, many inside the organization were adamant that, with those acts, she had crossed an ethical line and should take a leave, as she had during her husband's campaign. Others said that, at a minimum, NBC needed to clarify exactly what roles she could and couldn't play.

NBC News President Neal Shapiro said Tuesday that he had gone "back and forth," contemplating what he also called uncharted territory. Ultimately, he said, "I shared her biggest concern -- that there would be such incredible scrutiny on every single thing she did

Covering California politics would be "obviously a bad idea," he said, but as the two talked, nearly every other potential topic she could cover also posed problems.

"We'd say, 'This really isn't political, but it could be; this isn't a central issue facing California, but it might be.' When you really looked at stories and assignments, it was sometimes very hard to guarantee they wouldn't touch on any part of politics, because so much of our life does," Shapiro said.

Shriver's departure from NBC News was described by the network as "an extended leave of absence," and Shapiro said she would be welcomed back in the future, depending on the vagaries of her political life. Schwarzenegger's current term ends in January 2007.

Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, called it a "good decision, both for her and her husband. We are entirely too far down the road of the total hybridizing of news and entertainment, and this was the mother of all examples of this."

But Schell said Shriver's continuing deal with the broader NBC network was also problematic. "Leaving the lingering suggestion of an association is sufficient to muddy the waters," he said.

A decision on how she will use her office as first lady -- she has a space inside the Capitol's "Horseshoe," where the governor's senior staff works -- is still to come.

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