Elizabeth Sporkin
March 18, 1991 12:00 PM

Before giving birth to her son, Benjamin, now 2, Meredith Vieira had suffered three miscarriages; another followed last July. So in mid-January, when the 37-year-old 60 Minutes correspondent learned that she was safely into another pregnancy, she and her husband, former CBS News producer Richard Cohen, 42, were delighted. “Motherhood is very much part of my life,” Vieira says, “and I absolutely love it.”

But she also loves her job—one of the most visible for a woman in network TV—as a globe-trotting reporter for prime time’s highest-rated news show. When she joined up in 1989, fresh from a stint on the failed CBS lite-news venture West 57th, she bargained herself into an unprecedented deal: As a partial replacement for the departing Diane Sawyer, Vieira would work part-time for two years for a reported $450.000-plus annual salary—less than half the going full-time rate. But last month, when Vieira asked executive producer Don Hewitt for an extension of the agreement, since she was pregnant again, he said that her time on the show was up-causing the biggest ruckus on 60 Minutes since CBS News suspended commentator Andy Rooney last year for making remarks construed as antigay and antiblack.

So, while other TV news moms such as NBC’s Faith Daniels and Maria Shriver continue to succeed—and a hopeful Connie Chung perseveres at pregnancy with a lightened workload condoned by CBS—Vieira finds her career on hold, if not on the rocks. Though her contract with CBS has another two years to run and she has been asked to look around and find a new job at the network, the woman whom former CBS News president Howard Stringer (now head of CBS Broadcast Group) once called “a wonderful role model for every modern woman you could think of” is now an example of a different kind.

Her fall, if that is what it turns out to be, has been even faster than her rise. Carried along by the feminist advances of the past two decades, the Providence-born, Tufts-educated Vieira had moved quickly from radio news announcer in Worcester, Mass. (1975), to Chicago-based CBS reporter (1982) to West 57th cohost (1985). “In the pursuit of a story, she’s tough, she’s firm, but she doesn’t feel the need to punch anybody’s lights out unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote in Esquire back in 1988. It was a testament to the high regard in which she was held at the network that the demanding Hewitt was willing to accommodate Vieira’s request to work part-time. “We never did this for anybody else before.” he says. “We said we’ll live with this for two years because we want [her] to be able to be here when Harry Reasoner retires.”

Now that founding correspondent Reasoner, 67, has announced his plan to step down this spring, Hewitt will wait no longer. “I can’t take any part-timers.” he says, pointing out that the other correspondents—Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Steve Kroft—each are scheduled to do 22 stories a year, compared with the 13 that Vieira has aired since she started. What’s more, Hewitt adds, “Meredith has yet to make the splash that a Jane Pauley made or that a Barbara Walters made or a Connie Chung has made.”

Vieira, who did gain attention for her first piece on zoos selling endangered animals to dealers, and notoriety by revealing her gams in Esquire in 1988, says she thought of her 60 Minutes position as “not a stepping-stone kind of a job but as the end of the road for me.” Still, she is sympathetic to Hewitt’s position. “Don has every right to make that decision,” she says. “I don’t feel betrayed. I’m sad because I feel that we both lose in the long run.”

In the short run, Vieira clearly is the bigger loser, especially since the names of network stars such as CBS correspondent Bob Simon, just returned from his harrowing captivity in Iraq, and Face the Nation moderator Lesley Stahl have been mentioned as possible replacements. For his part, Hewitt says her successor “will be somebody who slips in here as effortlessly as Steve Kroft.”

Some suggest that Vieira’s status may have been weakened by her husband, who was fired from CBS in 1988 for publicly criticizing the network and clashing with Dan Rather. Another sore point may be Vieira’s age—decades younger than Wallace, 72, Safer, 59, Reasoner and Hewitt, 68. (Kroft is 45 and Bradley 49.)

The generation gap may be the source of reported grumbling about the blue jeans she has been known to wear to work, the playpen in her office and her abbreviated hours. “I certainly think I was an odd duck here,” Vieira admits. “I came in literally with a baby at my breast, and that was something that 60 Minutes wasn’t used to, but I think they bent over backward trying to get used to it.”

Perhaps Vieira simply was asking for too much. “I really think that CBS gave her a good deal here,” says former network correspondent Linda Ellerbee, herself the mother of two grown children. “The woman still has a job.”

But Vieira’s former West 57th colleague Jane Wallace, who adopted a son 15 months ago and most recently hosted Lifetime’s Jane Wallace Show, disagrees. “I think what 60 Minutes is doing is really shortsighted,” Wallace says. “At some point they have to realize that having babies is part of life, and they want correspondents who are alive.”

That point may not be in the near future. “Don Hewitt is not going to be the one to make changes,” argues veteran network correspondent Marlene Sanders, who worked at CBS for 10 years and now hosts a local New York PBS show, Thirteen Live. “He resisted having any women on his staff for ages. So I think what probably has to happen is you have to have a new generation of men in charge who recognize that people have to have personal lives.” That assumes, of course, that in the next generation, those in charge will be men.

—Elizabeth Sporkin, Maria Speidel in New York City

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