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

August 07, 1994|By Howard Rosenberg | Howard Rosenberg,Los Angeles Times

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.

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