Collectors of seemingly idiotic remarks made by Phyllis George on "The CBS Morning News" hit a vein yesterday when George asked Gary Dotson, freed after six years in prison on a rape charge, and Cathleen Webb, the victim who now says the rape never occurred, to hug each other on the air.
The request, at the end of a bubbly George interview, lit up the CBS switchboard here with calls from offended viewers. Dotson and Webb made the rounds of all three network morning shows yesterday on a whirlwind media tour that began to take on farcical aspects.
Both "NBC Nightly News" and "ABC World News Tonight" had reports last night on the press attention showering down on Dotson and Webb. ABC's report included a clip of George's invitation to a hug.
Calling the Webb-Dotson press tour "a charade," George said last night from her home in Manhattan that the hug request was "kind of one of those quick little comments from me" that was "not intended to cause any uproar."
Conceding that "some of my feminist friends" may have objected to the remark, George said, "I don't want this to be a big story. I certainly didn't mean to offend anyone. It certainly, in my opinion, shouldn't have outraged anyone."
Last to get Webb and Dotson yesterday, "Morning News" is also the third-rated of the early network shows, whose latest in a long series of futile revampings installed the personable but flighty George in the coanchor seat last January. Bill Kurtis, her partner on the air, has several times hinted he is anxious to leave the program and is almost certain to leave early this summer. Both Kurtis and George will first put on a happy face for a joint appearance at the CBS affiliates' meeting in San Francisco next week.
Basking in the glow of last week's engaging broadcasts from Europe on the anniversary of V-E Day, the show's staff must nevertheless continue to rebuff rumors that both Kurtis and executive producer Jon Katz are about to depart.
Some CBS correspondents say privately that they find George an embarrassment and that The Hug took The Cake. George had already asked convicted rapist Dotson if he felt like a "celebrity" (he said no) and told him he signed autographs "like a pro." Then, at the end of the interview, George asked Dotson and Webb to shake hands, as if she had just settled a minor tiff between them. When they hesitantly complied, George said, "How about a hug?"
"Incredibly poor taste," groaned a spokesman for another network who saw the interview, calling it "another entry to add to the laundry list of Phyllis George gaffes." Another competitor said of George's remark, "It's the dumbest thing I ever heard."
Phyllis McGrady, executive producer of ABC's "Good Morning, America," the top-rated of the three morning programs, said she did not want to be critical of George but said of the "hug" request, "I'm surprised she asked that."
Steve Friedman, executive producer of the NBC "Today" show, said he was too busy to have seen the interview but was apprised of it later. All he would say about the "Morning News" is, "I hope those people stay, and do exactly what they're doing," since they have given him few worries about competition.
George said she felt the invitation to a hug was a legitimate interviewing device, especially considering the unusual circumstances surrounding the couple. "Here they are parading around on national television saying they're innocent, and what is the purpose of it?" George asked. She said that since Webb professes to be a born-again Christian, and Dotson insists he has no bitterness even after six years in jail, asking them to hug was a way of answering the question, "How serious are they?"
Having been briefed on what the pair said on previous interviews yesterday, George said, "I knew I had to go a different route. I wanted to get the personal side. I don't think it's such a big deal. This whole thing seems to have been a charade anyway."
"Today," which broke the story of Webb's decision to recant her tale of having been raped by Dotson in 1977, aired the first of the three interviews yesterday. It was conducted by Jane Pauley. Dotson and Webb were then interviewed by Joan Lunden on "Good Morning, America" and by George on the "Morning News."
A story that had natural tabloid elements also took on those of a cloak-and-dagger thriller Monday when Webb arrived in New York. NBC News, which had claim on the first joint broadcast interview, thought that complete secrecy about Webb's arrival had been maintained. But when Webb, her husband, and her lawyer and his wife arrived on a United flight at LaGuardia Monday night, not only were four TV news camera crews waiting to greet them, but another, from Chicago, had boarded the plane at O'Hare Airport and made the flight with her.
Philip Griffin, a young staff writer on the "Today" show assigned to spirit Webb and her party into the city, said yesterday that he managed to get the group into an NBC limousine and then had to go back into the airport to get their luggage. He directed the limousine driver to circle LaGuardia so as to keep the photographers away, but they followed in four cars of their own.
When they left the airport, the four cars chased the limousine all over New York. To avoid being followed to the hotel where Webb was booked, Griffin offered Webb an impromptu sightseeing tour. He said she seemed to be having a wonderful time. After nearly three hours, Griffin said, he was able to elude all four cars. "They did some fine driving," he said. Three crews were also waiting Tuesday night when Dotson arrived in a chartered plane at the Butler Aviation terminal at LaGuardia, Griffin said.
Webb and Dotson had specified they wanted to avoid a "circus" aspect. They got the Manhattan 500 instead.
One NBC source blames competitors at "Good Morning, America" for spreading the story that the network had pulled Dotson out of a ticketing line at O'Hare and sneaked him off to the private plane. In fact, said the source, the plane had been chartered well in advance.
Dotson and Webb had their first meeting since he was released, off-camera, in Webb's suite, paid for by NBC, at the Plaza Athenee Hotel.
Illinois Gov. James Thompson commuted Dotson's sentence Sunday even while expressing faith that the jury's original verdict of guilty was correct. Lawyers for Dotson and Webb, who sat with their clients on all three network shows, say they will push for a retrial to clear Dotson of the charge.
It is all but inevitable that TV will turn a story like this into media monkeyshines. Bookers for all three morning programs scrambled frantically to make sure they would be able to deliver Dotson and Webb, even though "Morning News" executive producer Katz said in an interview Tuesday that he was no longer very interested in the story and thought that the street violence in Philadelphia was "much more important."
Katz was ill and could not be reached for comment yesterday, CBS News spokesman Ann Morfogen said from New York.
While the Washington bureau of CBS News logged 20 calls of complaint about the interview, an unusually high number, Morfogen said there had not been many calls received at CBS in New York. Asked for her reaction to the George interview, Morfogen said, "Well, you know Phyllis!" She said that the interview had gone very well up to the hug point.
"Phyllis was just trying to help them relax and bring them out," Morfogen said in George's defense. Of the hug remark, Morfogen said, "It's unfortunate that that had to be the end of what was otherwise a much better interview" than those on the other two networks.
Kurtis, who was sitting behind the news desk on the set when Phyllis asked for huggies, said late yesterday he did not want to comment on the interview nor on the persistent rumors of his imminent departure from the show for greener pastures.
Knowledgeable sources say the most likely scenario for the future of the program is that Kurtis will return to Chicago and a seven-figure annual salary as the city's top anchorman and that Katz will be promoted upward within CBS News.
Perhaps George's line of questioning yesterday would have seemed less excruciating if she hadn't been so giggly asking some of the questions. She told Dotson, "I read this morning that you've had 41 television offers to put this into a movie. Is that right? Do you feel like a celebrity?" She had a big grin on her face through all of this.
When Dotson said he'd had "offers" of jobs, now that he is out of prison, George jovially asked, "Starring in your own movie?", apparently thinking he meant that kind of offer. Said Dotson, "No." Perhaps only Phyllis George would see this bizarre rape case as a story about celebrityhood.
And then again, maybe it is.