Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on CBS 'Early Show' Co-Host Maggie Rodriguez

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

NEW YORK -- Maggie Rodriguez, the daughter of Cuban refugees, was a Miami anchor when she was offered the break of a lifetime: a chance to be the Saturday co-host of CBS's "Early Show."

She said no.

Rodriguez's husband had no job offer in New York, and "I couldn't be that selfish," she says. Besides, "we were perfectly happy with our lives in Miami."

But CBS News President Sean McManus was persistent: "This is not a threat," he recalls telling her in 2007, "but if you turn this down, I'm not sure there's going to be a job that is custom-suited for you at any network in the next decade."

Rodriguez changed her mind -- the network offered more money; her husband got a job transfer -- and within six months she was promoted to CBS's weekday morning lineup. But two years later she remains just below the media radar. Unlike the hiring of Meredith Vieira at "Today" or Diane Sawyer at "Good Morning America," periodic talent shuffles at the "Early Show" are not big news because the program has been mired in third place for decades.

In fact, the parade of hosts -- Phyllis George, Sally Quinn, Mariette Hartley, Maria Shriver, Forrest Sawyer, Kathleen Sullivan, Paula Zahn, Bryant Gumbel, Jane Clayson, Hannah Storm, Rene Syler -- can seem like something of a blur.

But the "Early Show" has enjoyed an uptick in the ratings, lifting spirits at the broadcast. Rodriguez, who co-hosts with Harry Smith and Julie Chen, has grabbed some attention for landing exclusive interviews with such figures as Levi Johnston, Bristol Palin's ex-boyfriend, which some critics derided as exploitation. "If his own mother was desperate to get his point of view on television, I didn't feel we were exploiting him at all," Rodriguez says.

She has also landed exclusives with Vicki Iseman, the lobbyist who sued the New York Times over suggestions of an intimate relationship with John McCain, and the grandparents of Caylee Anthony, the slain Florida toddler. Rodriguez scored that interview by showing up at the girl's memorial service, introducing herself to the grandparents and courting them for months.

"She has terrific energy," Smith says. "She knows what it takes to go get a story. She's not afraid to leave the building." He adds that Rodriguez is "very hungry to learn" more about on-air techniques. The network brass has taken notice: Rodriguez now regularly substitutes for Katie Couric on the evening news.

The "Early Show," like the other morning broadcasts, devotes considerable time to crime and celebrity stories. "If I were to program a show for my viewing pleasure, I would make it all news," says Rodriguez, 39. "But we're programming for all of America. We have to include Jon and Kate [Gosselin] -- regardless of whether I personally care, they're on the cover of every magazine. You can't be so highbrow that you only cover hard news. I'm not a journalistic snob."

The program dispatched Rodriguez to Michael Jackson's memorial service in Los Angeles last week. Rodriguez embraced the story, interviewing, among others, the Jackson family attorney, his former publicist, the nurse who worked for Jackson in his final months and a producer who was with him the night before he died. She says she's "proud" of the two weeks of heavy coverage.

With her petite frame and pleasant demeanor, Rodriguez can seem charmingly inoffensive, but she flashes her steelier side on occasion. After the Rev. Alberto CutiƩ, a high-profile Miami Beach priest, was bounced from his leadership post for cavorting with a woman, Rodriguez had an automatic in -- CutiƩ was a family friend who had presided at the wedding of her husband's niece.

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