Charlayne Hunter-Gault wants a series of her own on PBS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Calling all upper crusts.

"Mr. and Mrs. Oscar de la Renta and the Thirteen/WNET Gala Committee invite you to salute a cast of legendary talent," read the invitation to a black-tie fund-raising dinner and dance at New York's Plaza Hotel on behalf of the city's public-television station earlier this summer.

Peter Duchin and his orchestra would provide the music for these society swells. Table cost: $1,000 to $25,000.

Studio photographs of the evening's five honorees bannered the invitation below their names: Brooke Astor, a prominent philanthropist; Joan Ganz Cooney, head of Children's Television Workshop, which begat "Sesame Street"; Beverly Sills, opera's transcendent super-diva; Gay Vance, wife of former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance; and Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Ms. Hunter-Gault: tall, stunning and adored.

Ms. Hunter-Gault, a featured reporter on that PBS flagship "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" and anchor of an underdog weekly public-TV series titled "Rights & Wrongs."

Ms. Hunter-Gault, the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia.

Ms. Hunter-Gault's memoir, "In My Place," recounts her youth in Covington, Ga., and Atlanta. She became homecoming queen and a top student at her all-black high school and, after more than a year at Wayne State University in Detroit, she and classmate Hamilton Holmes were persuaded by civil rights leaders to break the University of Georgia's color barrier. When a 1961 court order popped open the legal doors, the Old South's first successful college desegregation was tumultuously under way.

Ms. Hunter-Gault's career has earned her awards galore and honorary doctorates from eight universities. A paparazzo's banquet, her office's bright white walls are a carpet-to-ceiling gallery of photographs of her with VIPs of enormous fame and clout.

And there's Ms. Hunter-Gault of the ordinary folk, too, flattered on the streets by doting "MacNeil/Lehrer" viewers who cite stories she did weeks, months, even years ago.

Ms. Hunter-Gault, age 52 and looking 42 max, on her game, on her mark, aiming high, riding high, flying high.

"I'm soaring," she says before attending the WNET gala. "And I'm drowning at the same time."

"Where do I go? I mean, where does someone like me now go? At a certain point, with this much time invested, I should have a series of my own where I make the decisions, where I decide what goes on the air. I'd like to be on the air every night. Like Charlie Rose -- I could do that," she says, referring to the host of a weeknight interview program on PBS.

Armed with her University of Georgia journalism degree, Ms. Hunter-Gault worked briefly as a "Talk of the Town" reporter for the New Yorker magazine and then as a reporter for a Washington television station. She spent the next decade at the New York Times, at one point operating a one-person bureau in Harlem. In 1978, she joined the "MacNeil/Lehrer" program as a correspondent and backup anchor, ultimately becoming one of the program's most visible and valuable components.

Critiques and accolades

Not everyone is a Hunter-Gault fan. At least one group of Jewish activists in the United States, for example, complained bitterly that her 1993 interviews with Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East were overwhelmingly pro-Arab. "Some of their criticisms were valid," she acknowledged. "There were some facts in dispute."

In contrast, though, comes the flood of accolades.

"The special skill she has is the ability to sit down with somebody and get them to talk," says Washington-based "MacNeil/Lehrer" co-anchor Jim Lehrer. "She's terrific at it."

"She has a very good instinct for spotting the heart of a story in the field," says Lester Crystal, "MacNeil/Lehrer's" executive producer.

"She's such an imposing figure," says Steve Futterman, an NBC/Mutual Radio reporter who was wowed by Ms. Hunter-Gault's work in Saudi Arabia when he was there during the Persian Gulf war. "She was always prepared, always seemed to know the answers to the questions she was asking. The generals were very impressed with her. And her reports from Iraq before the war were brilliant, very thorough. She cared more about the story than the sizzle."

But television viewers see only one side of her. "She's very outgoing and loves parties, friends and laughing," says Kathi Fern-Banks, a longtime friend, former classmate and sorority sister at Wayne State University. "I would have thought, prior to this job, she didn't have a serious bone in her body."

It was a gregarious but intense Ms. Hunter-Gault -- alternating flashes of laughter and down-home chattiness with glimmers of irritation -- that emerged while evaluating her life and career during an interview in her office at WNET, where New York portions of the program originate.

"I've always wanted to be assessed on the basis of my ability," she says. "That's why I'm so frustrated at always being identified as the first black woman to go to the University of Georgia. I wanted to be famous for the ability that I had. I had the raw material and then went on to the experience that would hone the raw material into something that was professionally good. I got my fingernails full of dirt in the real world of reporting.

Having the qualifications

"A consideration of this show when they chose a third correspondent to come on [with Mr. MacNeil and Mr. Lehrer] was that they wanted a woman, and it turned out that I was black, and that was fine too. But they couldn't have hired just any black woman. There was an effort to match qualification with that. So I have all those things -- qualified and a woman and black.

"And now, when I look at all that and look at where I am, and the way the world is changing, hear the rhetoric of station managers and news directors, especially in public television, which has always talked a good game -- well, all I can say is that public television is resting on its past laurels. In the system's prime hours, its principal [public-affairs] programs are anchored by white males."

Responding from Washington to the charge of racial and gender monotony at PBS during peak viewing hours, Jennifer Lawson, the network's executive vice president for national programming and promotion services, cited Ms. Hunter-Gault's own presence as exemplifying "our commitment to diversity."

Meager diversity

All in all, as Ms. Hunter-Gault noted, the network offers meager diversity, making it clear that the public-affairs face of PBS remains predominantly white and male (from her colleagues Mr. MacNeil and Mr. Lehrer to Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Louis Rukeyser and Ken Bode).

"So if you have in your repertoire, in your stable, somebody who is different than that, and you are committed to diversity," Ms. Hunter-Gault went on, "why is it I've reached the glass ceiling? Why is it that others who are not white and male can't find some place in this universe of public television? All of the men who have these programs are people whose journalism I respect and admire, and they should have those spots. But are they saying in the end that there's no room for anyone who's different from them?"

The series that is Ms. Hunter-Gault's own, in effect, is "Rights & Wrongs," a refreshingly uncommon half-hour produced by Globalvision. The small, scrappy, independent production company operates out of a modest suite of offices in an unpretentious building only a 10-minute walk from the swankier WNET digs where "MacNeil/Lehrer" and its New York staff have their headquarters.

Symbolically, though, "Rights & Wrongs" might as well be in Newfoundland, for despite Ms. Hunter-Gault's tight fusion with the series and the comprehensive and incisive way it covers human rights globally, it has been jettisoned to the outback of public television, having been rejected for national distribution by PBS since early 1993.

Although "MacNeil/Lehrer" is her main livelihood, Ms. Hunter-Gault is "Rights & Wrongs" to a large extent -- anchoring, interviewing and recording voice-overs for the series, while also being its "super-editor" and providing star power when it comes to raising money to keep it breathing.

Ms. Lawson, the PBS executive, contends that human rights alone is "an insufficient organizing principle" for a PBS series. "Rights & Wrongs" co-producer Danny Schechter mocks Ms. Lawson: "And cooking and stock tips are a sufficient organizing principle?"

Thus, instead of getting PBS to beam "Rights & Wrongs" to its 346 member stations, Globalvision has had to peddle the series to traditionally timid PBS outlets individually. Only two dozen stations now carry the series, and most of those relegate it to relative obscurity.

And in what Ms. Hunter-Gault seems to regard as a personal affront, one of the balkers is WETA, the major Washington station where portions of "MacNeil/Lehrer" originate.

When it comes to "MacNeil/Lehrer," it's her own drawn-out absences that increasingly concern Ms. Hunter-Gault. "I don't want to be on every now and then," she says. "I hate it when I walk out on the street that people say, 'Oh, we haven't seen you for a while. Have you been away?' No, I haven't been away. I've been waiting to get on the air."

Reporters always want more time or space, notes "MacNeil/Lehrer's" chief, Mr. Crystal, who joins others in praising the "conversations" -- clusters of chats with individuals or groups on topical issues -- that have become Ms. Hunter-Gault's big, looping signature.

Ms. Hunter-Gault is not easily mollified, and her ambition and appetite remain great. "I guess my problem is that I unapologetically want it all," she says, "because I energetically worked for it."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
81°