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With Maggie Rodriguez, 'Early' Begins to Rise

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 Cutié, a high-profile Miami Beach priest, was bounced from his leadership post for cavorting with a woman, Rodriguez had an automatic in -- Cutié was a family friend who had presided at the wedding of her husband's niece.

But when Rodriguez called to book Cutié, she told him: "Because I know you, I can't softball you. I may have to be even harder on you." Rodriguez did an aggressive interview, telling Cutié: "The fact remains that you were on a public beach engaging in this behavior with this woman. Even people who support your breaking the celibacy promise think that what you did is completely inappropriate."

Although the University of Miami graduate is more comfortable speaking English than Spanish, her heritage has clearly helped her career. Rodriguez has never been to Cuba, out of respect for her parents, who fled the island in 1961 after her father was involved in planning for the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion.

She started as a producer at a Univision cable station in Miami, carrying her own camera gear when she got a shot at reporting. Rodriguez moved to KABC in Los Angeles, working overnight and weekend shifts before rising to anchor. Then she returned home to anchor at the CBS affiliate in Miami, which hosted the Super Bowl in 2007. McManus, who is also president of CBS Sports, came to town that week and saw her do numerous live shots, which led to the courtship.

At the "Early Show," Rodriguez found that she liked the cooking and fashion segments as long as she could get her share of the hard-news stories. During last year's campaign, she interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain while anchoring from the National Council of La Raza conference in San Diego. She also interviewed Michelle Obama, and "we connected on a mom-to-mom level," Rodriguez says.

Zev Shalev, the "Early Show" executive producer, says Rodriguez "brings that morning-TV spark to the table. You get that she's a mother, that she's a Hispanic. She's got a real sense of identity."

While attending an all-girls Catholic high school, Rodriguez says, she had no Hispanic role model on television. These days, she says she is "proud" of Sonia Sotomayor but would not overlook her weak points in reporting on her Supreme Court nomination.

"My responsibility as a Latina on the national stage is to represent my community well, but also to bring it to the attention of news executives if there's a story that affects my community," Rodriguez says.

She doesn't prattle on about her personal life, but her 4-year-old daughter, Daniella, has appeared on the show. "She likes it a little too much," Rodriguez says.

Even as Smith, Chen and Rodriguez grow more comfortable after CBS's failed experiment with a four-anchor team, the program remains far behind its rivals. After the May sweeps, the "Early Show" boasted of a 5 percent increase in viewers, while "Today" dipped 3 percent and "Good Morning America" 4 percent. But the raw numbers tell a different story: "Today" drew 5.61 million viewers; "GMA" 4.45 million, and the "Early Show" 2.92 million.

"We're bucking decades of limited success. Of course it's frustrating," McManus admits. Shalev complains that "it's harder to get the attention I think we deserve."

Rodriguez insists she never looks at ratings. "I don't want to drive myself crazy," she says. "If we don't do well one particular morning, I don't want to analyze why that was."

Contracting Out

The lead story in The Washington Post's Health section last week, on why some people seem immune to AIDS, focused in part on a top physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The work of researcher Bruce Walker, who runs the hospital's Partners AIDS Research Center, was first spotlighted in the third and fourth paragraphs. The article ended with a dutiful disclosure that it was condensed from one that had run in Proto, the magazine of, yes, Massachusetts General Hospital.

What gives? Health Editor Frances Stead Sellers, who obtained the piece without charge, says Proto is "one of the best biomedical magazines," that the article was by an established freelancer and that she was transparent about the story's origin. "The cure for a perceived conflict is disclosure. . . . I felt with this piece I was bringing something very interesting to readers," she says.

The magazine is produced by Time Inc. Content Solutions, where spokeswoman Carrie Jones says the hospital gets to review all copy and "to bask in the reflected glory" of a high-quality publication.

Sellers, who had run an earlier piece from Proto, says early-retirement buyouts at The Post have cut the weekly section's full-time staff from four to none, forcing her to rely heavily on freelancers. "If I had a whole bundle of reporters, I wouldn't be thinking of doing this," she says.

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