Despite the success and availability of Ms. Hunter-Gault's autobiography, the decision was made to interview her for several reasons. Foremost among these was that her narrative only describes her life up to her professional career in journalism—a diverse career that has included employment at The New Yorker, the New York Times and "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" at PBS, three of journalism's most venerable institutions. Secondly, Ms. Hunter-Gault was chosen as one of the women who has "opened doors for others." Ms. Hunter-Gault is an especially apt choice, as she has so clearly and skillfully demonstrated a commitment to understanding and fulfilling the definitions of a role model—which include remaining open and human to the continuing challenge of personal and professional development.
Something about the character of the individual often demonstrates itself in diversions from, or tangents within, the interview setting. Ms. Hunter-Gault's commitment to communicating her values with others became strikingly evident in our first meeting. Near the end of our first session conducted in her office, Ms. Hunter-Gault said she would give me a few more minutes on tape if she could rifle through some papers as we talked. Soon it became clear she couldn't find the piece of paper she was looking for, and that finding it was at least as important to her as the interview in progress. Intrigued by this diversion, I asked her what it was about and she said, "I am speaking at a high school graduation tonight, and I wrote just the right words down on the plane this morning. There's nothing more important than reaching our young people." My fantasy, that she had been preparing for a special broadcast, a meeting with heads of state or a delegation from the White House, was cleared away as she spoke powerfully and eloquently of the need to convince the next generation of their potential and worth.
There were also many times when Ms. Hunter-Gault accepted phone calls from family and close friends, never at the expense of the interview, but in fidelity to a value system in which the personal and the professional are woven together in a tapestry too thick to unravel.
These accidental glimpses into Ms. Hunter-Gault's character are revelatory not only of her personal values and priorities, but of her much admired ability in the news to formulate quick and effective judgments about what is important. At The New Yorker, Ms. Hunter-Gault was asked to cover Harlem during the early sixties. Her stories, even then, revealed her adamant goal to cover the news through the eyes of people whose lives were usually nothing like the stilted or overblown reports that appeared in the media.
At the New York Times, Ms. Hunter-Gault continued to report on the daily lives of African Americans the mainstream media knew little about, challenging the Times to open a "Harlem Bureau," which she then ran single-handedly. The point was to take the paper to Harlem, and not the other way around. While she was at the Times, she also succeeded—in a brilliant maneuver she describes in the oral history—in getting the editors to adopt the usage of the term "black" and drop the word "Negro," still favored by the paper in the late sixties.
While in-depth reporting is usually seen as the domain of newspapers and magazines, Ms. Hunter-Gault has utilized her role as correspondent at "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" to hone and deepen her skills as a journalist. Her goal of covering the news "through the eyes of the people who live it" has been ably demonstrated on several award-winning series, including specials on South Africa, Grenada, the Middle East and domestic profiles on education, poverty, affirmative action and other social issues. Titles of some of these shows, and awards received, are listed in Ms. Hunter-Gault's résumé which follows this introduction.
Ms. Hunter-Gault's ability to discern what's behind the news headlines in the field is matched by her behind-the-scenes insights into the dynamics of the still largely white, male and middle-class mainstream media. Discussions of editors' choices about hirings, assignments and formulas for how to cover the news will inform women and minority journalism students and media historians about the challenges the industry has only begun to face. Ms. Hunter-Gault's judgments about what the news is, who covers it and standards of so-called "objectivity" are as subtle and complex as the news itself—which, despite her clear and friendly approach, she has made a career of refusing to simplify.
At this point in an already very successful career, Ms. Hunter-Gault is still intrigued by areas in which she needs to grow both in herself and in the field of journalism. Because of this, the oral history she granted is not so much about the past as it is about the tension of what was with what is and, as has always been true for Ms. Hunter-Gault, what can be.
Research for the interview included a review of In My Place, clips from The New Yorker, the New York Times and viewings of videotaped productions held at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City and available through MacNeil/Lehrer at PBS. The interviews were conducted at Ms. Hunter-Gault's office at PBS in New York City.
Mary Marshall Clark
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is national correspondent for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault joined The MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1978 as a correspondent. She began her journalistic career as a "Talk of the Town" reporter for The New Yorker magazine. After winning a Russell Sage Fellowship, she went to Washington University, where she served on the staff of Trans-Action magazine. In 1967, she joined the investigative news team at WRC-TV, Washington, D.C., where she also anchored the local evening news.
In 1968, Hunter-Gault joined The New York Times as a metropolitan reporter specializing in coverage of the urban black community. Her work was honored with numerous awards during her ten years with the Times, including the National Urban Coalition Award for Distinguished Urban Reporting.
In 1986, Hunter-Gault was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Broadcast Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her work on the Apartheid's People, a NewsHour series about life in contemporary South Africa, which was later packaged as a one-hour documentary on PBS. In March 1989 she was a correspondent for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions' five-part series on education, Learning in America.
Hunter-Gault was the recipient of the 1990 Sidney Hillman Award for her six-part series entitled Out of Reach: People at the Bottom. While with MacNeil/Lehrer she has also been recognized by, among others, the Good Housekeeping Broadcast Personality of the Year Award, the American Women in Radio and Television Award and two awards from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for excellence in local programming. She has also received two National News and Documentary Emmy Awards for her work on the NewsHour. The first, for Outstanding Coverage of a Single Breaking News Story, recognized her coverage of the American invasion of Grenada. The second, for Outstanding Background/Analysis of a Single Current Story (segments), honored her reporting of the ordeal suffered by the son of U.S. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was contaminated by Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam under his father's command.
Hunter-Gault's most recent publication is a memoir entitled In My Place (1992). In addition to her work for The New Yorker and The New York Times, Hunter-Gault has published articles in The New York Times Magazine, Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, Essence and Vogue.
Hunter-Gault, the first black woman to graduate from the University of Georgia, is married and has two children. She lives in New York.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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