It's Murphy Brown minus the laugh track XTC

June 24, 1992|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,Los Angeles Times

BOSTON -- For one goofy moment after Murphy Brown announced that she was pregnant, WBZ-TV news anchor Liz Walker thought that maybe the show's producers had stolen her life.

After all, Ms. Walker had ignited a controversy of her own five years ago when she disclosed that she was expecting a baby -- and that she had no intention of revealing the identity of the child's father, much less of marrying him.

So the similarities were chilling -- although Diane English, the creator of "Murphy Brown," declined to comment on the resemblance between Ms. Walker and the character portrayed on the CBS series by Candice Bergen.

And when Vice President Dan Quayle recently accused the make-believe television anchorwoman of contributing to the moral degeneracy of America, Ms. Walker could only shudder at the irony. She did not exactly seize the occasion as an opportunity to scream her case from the nearest television transmitter, but, when asked, she agreed that the discussion was definitely deja vu all over again.

"I guess I kind of went, 'Oh boy, here we go again,' " Ms. Walker said.

There was, however, one significant difference between Ms. Walker's real-life story line and "Murphy Brown's" pretend plot.

"I didn't have a laugh track in my life," Ms. Walker said.

On the contrary, Ms. Walker found herself the target of angry criticism that began in the first weeks of her pregnancy and continued until Nicholas Charles Walker, now 4 1/2 , made his healthy and full-term debut.

Because she is black, many African-American leaders blasted Ms. Walker for somehow betraying her responsibility as a role model for young people.

"The reaction was basically, 'How dare you do this, when black teen-age pregnancy is at an all-time high?' " Ms. Walker recalled.

But she saw little parallel between her own status as one of New England's most popular television news personalities and the plight of an unmarried, adolescent black mother. She was 36 years old, she had a college education, she had worked in television for 15 years -- and even five years ago, her annual salary at Boston's NBC affiliate was well over half a million dollars.

"I thought it was very unfair to fault me in that regard. It was apples and oranges," Ms. Walker said. "If there was any kind of message that I was sending out with my life, it was that at 36, an independent, financially secure, educated woman of sound mind and body has a right to do what she wants."

At the time, Ms. Walker kept her thoughts to herself. Beyond divulging her pregnancy, she said nothing publicly -- not one single word.

"I decided to stay out of it," she said. "I thought I was out in the public arena, and that was the beating I had to take. I knew that if I tried to confront it, no matter what I said, it was a no-win situation."

To her amazement, her employer offered unwavering support. "I really was prepared for the worst," she said, recalling how she steeled herself when she and her lawyer told Tom Goodgame, then the station's general manager, that she was going to become a single parent.

Ms. Walker said she had assumed that she would be "forced to leave television. 'Being on the air and being single and pregnant is just too much for us to stand' is what I thought they would say."

Instead, Mr. Goodgame looked Ms. Walker straight in the eye and wished her congratulations.

Family and friends deluged her with advice. Ms. Walker's brother counseled her to get married, to anyone. A gay male friend volunteered to be her bridegroom.

But Ms. Walker saw no reason to apologize. Her goals were to have her baby, and to do her job. "I certainly wasn't trying to take on the Establishment. I can't even tell you that it was some long, drawn-out thought process," she said. "I just never thought of myself as a victim or a symbol."

Still, Ms. Walker felt a certain vindication when Murphy Brown, a fictional unmarried television newswoman, could make headlines by getting pregnant. "The fact that they were putting it on TV like that meant that it was happening more and more," she said.

It also meant that Ms. Walker felt comfortable breaking her silence. "I was really hurt by the things that happened when I was pregnant. They were so unnecessary," she said.

Secure in her marriage of one year to Boston attorney Harry Graham, and happy in -- if occasionally befuddled by -- her role as stepmother to his two children, Ms. Walker said that the flap over Murphy Brown's baby gave her an occasion to look back, publicly, and say, "Yeah, I don't regret it." Ms. Walker also felt she could now give voice to the indignation that had been stewing in her.

"The issue was never my impact as a role model. The issue was my right to live my life," she fumed. Besides, she added, "How dare someone make a judgment without knowing me?"

Ms. Walker said that she continues to spend time with youth groups in Boston's African-American community. A frequent theme for her is that "where you come from has nothing to do with who you are."

She preferred not to address Dan Quayle's denunciation of Ms. Bergen's fictional character. "He's the vice president; that's his job," said Ms. Walker.

But she offered a firm rejoinder to those who supported Quayle's contention that an unmarried woman has no business having a child.

"It's wonderful to have a partner, but life doesn't always work that way," Walker said.

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