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Gail Shister

How a ‘Married, Heterosexual, Christian mother’ and NPR Host Became a Gay Rights Ally

The record number of openly-gay Congressional candidates elected two weeks ago “should be a wake-up call, on a number of levels, that the real America can be found in lots of places,” says National Public Radio’s Michel Martin.

A self-described “married, heterosexual, Christian mother,” Martin, 53, an African American, routinely addresses gay issues, as well as those of other minorities, on “Tell Me More,” the daily news-talk show she launched in 2007.

The struggle for gay equality “is one of the most important civil rights movements of our time,” says Martin, who last week received the first Randy Shilts Award for LGBT Coverage, sponsored by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. (Full disclosure: I am a long-time member of NLGJA.)

Gay rights “is also one of the most important human rights stories of our time,” Martin adds. “I don’t understand why we wouldn’t do those stories.”

“Tell Me More” has done in-depth looks at topics ranging from gay people of faith to gays in prison to transsexual athletes. Martin’s mission, she says, is to present a diversity of perspectives within the LGBT community. “There is no one gay opinion, just like there’s no one black opinion or one Latino opinion.”

The Shilts Award was named in memory of pioneering San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts. The first reporter to cover a ‘gay beat’ for a major metro daily, he wrote three best-sellers, including the groundbreaking ‘And the Band Played On,’ about the AIDS crisis.

Martin was chosen as the inaugural recipient “because she goes out of her way to tell our stories, and she teaches us about aspects of our own community,” says Matthew E. Berger, co-chair of the Washington, D.C., event. “That’s unique for an ally.” Read more

Candy Crowley’s Debate Dilemma: ‘Trying to find that space between cutting off the conversation too early or letting it go too long’

Don’t look for President Obama and Mitt Romney to play “Eat the Moderator” in their rematch tomorrow night, says CNN’s Candy Crowley.

With the format a Town Hall Meeting at Hofstra, the candidates are less likely to ignore the moderator and make speeches, as they did with PBS’s beleaguered Jim Lehrer in the first debate, Crowley says.

“When you’re dealing directly with voters, you’re less likely to go on and on,” says Crowley, ‘State of the Union’ anchor and the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 20 years. “There’s a different dynamic to it. Folks want to get a chance to talk to the guys.”

In a traditional debate format, “the president and Romney are quite happy to roll over the media,” Crowley, 63, says. “There’s no price to be paid for that.”

Lehrer was blasted from all corners for having been too passive. Crowley says he did exactly what he was supposed to do under the new debate format – allow the candidates to talk directly to each other in wide-open, 15-minute segments.

Getting the candidates to engage is not always easy, however, as Lehrer discovered. For most of the debate, Obama seemed like he was having an out-of-body experience.

“As much as Jim tried to have the men engage with each other, the bottom line is that the president didn’t want to engage with Romney,” says Crowley. “The president’s campaign said he wanted to talk to the American people directly. It appears he went in with the wrong strategy. Mitt was ready to rock and roll.”

On the other hand, if candidates become too engaged, “they look mean,” Crowley says. “They don’t

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Willie Geist Not Looking Beyond ‘Today’s’ Third Hour, Yet: ‘If I’m being groomed to replace Matt, I haven’t been told’

Willie Geist, today named 9 a.m. co-host of NBC’s “Today,” harbors only one fear about his new gig – he might have to wear a dress.

“I have a feeling I’m going to be a woman on the Halloween show,” he says in his trademark understated style. “I’m afraid it might be some kind of initiation, like paddling. I’ve never been a woman before, at least not professionally.”

Geist, a regular on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” since 2007, doesn’t officially begin until Nov. 12, but don’t be surprised to see him cross-dressed on “Today” on Oct. 31. Co-anchor Savannah Guthrie, a good pal, was Prince Charles on last year’s show.

The peripatetic Geist will remain a co-host on “Morning Joe” during the 6 a.m. hour, but will have to give up his 5:30 a.m. baby, “Way Too Early with Willie Geist,” which he created in 2009. It will live on under a new host.

“I don’t feel great about losing my show, but there was no way to keep doing it,” Geist, 37, says. “I couldn’t give it the time and attention it needs. It’s important to me that it live on. I started it as a lark. It’s amazing how many actual responsible human beings are watching at that hour – movers and shakers of the world.”

Geist will continue as a backup for Matt Lauer, co-anchor of ‘Today’s’ 7 to 9 a.m. hours since 1996. Conventional wisdom says Geist is being groomed to succeed him, but that’s not how Geist sees it.

“If I’m being groomed to replace Matt, I haven’t been told,” says Geist, who signed a new multi-year contract. (His previous deal expired at the end of September.) “There’s not even the implication of

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Fancy Footwork but No Knockout Blows as Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly Spar

Was it a mock debate? A mockable debate? A debatable mock?

Whatever it was, Jon Stewart’s and Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium’ Saturday night was a lot more fun to watch than was last week’s presidential debate.

In fact, President Obama and Mitt Romney would do well to consider bringing in Stewart and O’Reilly to prep the candidates for their next showdown, Oct. 16 at Hofstra. They could do a lot worse, and probably have.

Held at George Washington University’s sold-out Lisner Auditorium and streamed live online for $4.95, ‘Rumble’ featured equal parts polemics and poppycock about the country’s most pressing political issues. Lincoln-Douglas, it was not.

Both hosts were outside their natural habitats. O’Reilly is no standup comedian, and Stewart can bray when he overplays the righteous indignation card. Also, the two were used to going mano a mano in short segments on each other’s shows, but this event was 90 minutes. Untelevised minutes, to boot.

Still, as befits their unlikely bromance, the Lilliputian Stewart – he’s 5-foot-7 – and 6-foot-4 O’Reilly were obviously enjoying themselves at the sparring session. It wasn’t as funny as ‘The Daily Show’ or as fiery as ‘The Factor.’ It wasn’t even a rumble. But it had its moments.

Raising and lowering himself on an electric riser behind the podium, Stewart began his opening remarks with: “My friend Bill O’Reilly is completely full of shit.” He riffed about Fox

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Jim Lehrer on the Debate: ‘I understand why people were a little stunned by some of it’

Jim Lehrer to critics: Bring it.

PBS’s Lehrer today insisted that he’s unfazed by the avalanche of vitriolic responses to his moderator performance at Wednesday’s presidential debate, seen by an estimated 67 million Americans.

In Lehrer’s 12th presidential at-bat, critics blasted him for being too passive, allowing President Obama and Mitt Romney to steamroll him at will. Critics also said Lehrer’s questions were vague, and that they didn’t cover a broad enough range of issues.

“Everybody is welcome to criticize my questions, or anything else I did,” Lehrer, 78, says. “I have no problem with that. I knew, going in, this was not going to be easy. What the hell. … The next debate, people will tweet, tweet, tweet all over again. That’s terrific.”

Despite being constantly interrupted and talked over, Lehrer pronounced the new debate format — featuring 15-minute, wide-open segments for the candidates to directly address each other – a success.

“The format worked,” he says. “These guys were really talking to each other. Presidential candidates had never done that before. People, including the candidates, and including me, were used to a more controlled format, with two-minute answers.

“I played a different role than in the past. I was still the moderator, but it was a different kind of debate. I understand why people were a little stunned by some it. Over time, they’ll get used to it, and realize it works.”

The downside of the open format, Lehrer acknowledges, is that it’s virtually impossible to steer the candidates in a different direction or to get them to shut up.

“I would hope the candidates themselves would do that,” says Lehrer, ever the optimist. “Certainly,

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Between the Morning and the Evening, Katie Couric Settles In to Her Comfort Zone

If today’s long-awaited debut of Katie Couric’s syndicated talk show resembled an infomercial for Weight Watchers, that’s because it was.

The first three segments of Couric’s Disney chatfest were devoted almost entirely to guest Jessica Simpson’s post-partum weight loss — thanks to Weight Watchers. There were so many rhapsodic plugs, I kept waiting for the 800 number and my free ginzu knife.

Simpson gushed about her new role as a Weight Watchers poster girl. Then came a sneak preview of her Weight Watchers ad, followed by a full segment joined by her Weight Watchers coach. The capper was a free two-week Weight Watchers membership, via ‘Katie’s’ website.

To be kind, Jessica Simpson was no Sarah Palin, but Couric appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the absence of heavy lifting. After her hellish tenure as anchor of ‘CBS Evening News,’ ‘Katie’ must feel like a fabulous, all-expenses paid vacation. Hey, if Anderson Cooper did it, why not Couric?

Call it ‘Today Extra Lite.’

As has become the fashion, ‘Katie’ opened with a cutesy taped bit. More than a little derivative, given that she did the same thing for her guest-hosting stint on ‘Good Morning America’ in April.

She wakes up from a weird dream and proceeds to tell it to a mystery person in the other twin bed. (An homage to ‘I Love Lucy?’) “I dreamed I left ‘Today’ to anchor the evening news, and I did it for five years, and then I dreamed I was going to be hosting my own daytime talk show!”

Peeling back the covers, a jammies-clad Matt Lauer says: “That wasn’t a dream, and the talk show starts right now!” Cue hilarity.

After almost a full half-hour of Jessica Simpson and Weight Watchers, however, I was reeling from estrogen-induced boredom. Thankfully, the next guest, Sheryl Crow, who composed ‘Katie’s’ up-tempo theme song and is a good friend of the host, had some interesting things to say.

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Jim Lehrer: ‘I have no regrets about saying what I did, or about changing my mind’

Read my lips. No more debates.

Jim Lehrer didn’t use those words, but he might as well have. Lehrer’s November pronouncement that he would never host another presidential debate, like George H. W. Bush’s 1988 promise of no new taxes, turned out to be far from absolute.

With one major difference, according to PBS’s Lehrer. “There were consequences for him. There are no consequences for me.”

Lehrer will moderate the first Obama-Romney debate, Oct. 3 in Denver. It will be the 12th such event for Lehrer, 78, who last year retired as anchor of “NewsHour.” (For the first time since 1972, he won’t be the face of PBS at the national conventions.)

When members of the Commission of Presidential Debates asked Lehrer to re-consider, he said, Shermanesquely: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.” When the group pitched a new debate format, however, ‘never’ became too long to wait.

Despite the 180, Lehrer insists his conscience is clear.

“I have no regrets about saying what I did, or about changing my mind,” he says. “I am a regret-free person. I meant it when I said it at the time. I had no idea there would be a new format. Life is an ever-changing windstorm, and I’m a part of life.

“I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I want to moderate a presidential debate.’ There was a long, long buildup. I didn’t change. The circumstances changed. I wouldn’t have considered it for any other reason.”

The selection of Lehrer, along with that of CBS’s Bob Schieffer, CNN’s Candy Crowley and ABC’s Martha’s Raddatz has drawn heavy criticism from blacks and Hispanics for its absence of racial diversity. Others have accused the moderators of being too liberal and/or too mainstream.

To Lehrer, with half a century in the news business, it’s all background noise.

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With Wedding, a Cable News First

Abner and Roberts, joined by black lab/border collie mix Riley and Pitbull/lab mix Roxie Photo Credit: Ryan Scherb

Like any first-time groom, MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts has the jitters.

“Hell, yeah, I’m nervous,” says Roberts. “I need to visualize this evening going off without a hitch.  Right now, it’s all on paper – check writing, food decisions. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, on the day of, I’ll be really nervous.”

Roberts and Patrick Abner, of Merck Pharmaceuticals’ HIV/AIDS division, will tie the knot Sept. 29 before some 150 guests at an undisclosed Manhattan hotel on Park Avenue. The couple, both 39, have been together 12 years.

Roberts is the first cable anchor to legally marry someone of the same sex.

His colleague, Rachel Maddow, and Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon of CNN are all coupled, but technically single.

The Roberts-Abner wedding will not be a lavish affair — Business attire, buffet, lots of dancing. “We want it to be more like a Park Avenue cocktail party,” Roberts says. “We didn’t want to overdo it. We want it to be all the fun and none of the fuss. It suits our personalities.”

Another reason: “I’m cheap,” Roberts admits. “My dad always liked the term ‘cost effective.’ Neither one of us comes with a dowry. We have a number, and we’re sticking to it. We had to draw the line somewhere. Like a lot of American couples, money’s tight. We didn’t want to start out with a serious debt.”

Numerous surprises are planned, Roberts says, including a heavyweight officiate for the “simple” ceremony. The grooms’ siblings, along with Roberts’ best friend, will stand up for them.

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For Female Journalists, Another Significant ‘First’ This Election Season On PBS

When CNN’s Candy Crowley on Monday was named moderator for one of the Presidential debates, it drew headlines. Breaking a 20-year dry spell for women will do that.

So why the underwhelming response, relatively speaking, to PBS’s Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff — the first all-female team to spearhead a network’s convention coverage in news broadcast history?

Moreover, PBS didn’t even mention that fact when it announced the pairing in late June. It took another month before it came up during a PBS panel at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Ifill and Woodruff, both respected veterans of “PBS NewsHour,” insist their gender-making distinction is not a big deal.

“I think it matters a little; it doesn’t matter a lot,” says Woodruff, 65, whose first convention was in 1976 as a newbie NBC correspondent. “We’re not there because we’re women. We’re there because we love to cover politics and we’ve been doing it a long time.

“We’re not going to go on the air and say, ‘Aha, now is your chance to see two women on the convention.’ If others want to point it out, I’m very comfortable with it.”

Woodruff and Ifill will anchor from 8 to 11 each night from the Republican event, Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, followed by the Democratic gathering, Sept. 4-6 in Charlotte, N.C.

Ifill, 56, is no stranger to ‘firsts.’ As moderator of “Washington Week in Review” since 1999, she is the first female, and first person of color, to hold the position.

“It’s not important that we’re women,” she says of the historic convention partnership. “It’s important as a sign that ‘NewsHour’ is evolving, with the most experienced people doing the best job. Since Jim [Lehrer] went ‘stage right,’ as it were, Judy and I have been anchoring so much. Between us, we’ve covered something like 16 campaigns.

“The fact that we’re both women is almost incidental.”

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Studying Stephen Colbert. Seriously, Funny

Nation, Stephen Colbert is not a worthy subject for academic discourse.

Them’s fightin’ words to scholarly members of Colbert Nation like Penn State’s Sophia McClennen, the latest academician to write a book – with footnotes! — about the Comedy Central star.

Its title: ‘Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy’ (Palgrave Macmillan), though I like to call it ‘I Am Satire (And So Can You!)’ Out in paperback this month, the book is part of what the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi recently labeled as ‘the academic world’s obsession’ with Colbert.

Professor McClennen, who disputes that description, does acknowledge that Colbert’s on-air persona is “a huge deal in academia. On a basic cognitive level, in-character satire is a more complex form of satire. At a rhetorical level, the comedy is more complicated.”

Uh, will there be a quiz?

A self-described ‘Colbert geek,’ McClennen argues that “The Colbert Report” heralds a new era in media culture; one in which comedians increasingly influence the politics and news they satirize.

With his Super PACS and his vocabulary-bending ‘The Word’ segments, Colbert “plays with exercising his power,” she says in an interview.

He represents a “new kind of public intellectual-satirist,” in the vein of Mark Twain, Ben Franklin and Jonathan Swift.

No offense, Professor, but Colbert, like Jon Stewart, would probably have a good laugh at

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