Meredith’s Choice

Nov 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Second of two parts.

On a recent fall morning in New York, Meredith Vieira was at her usual place at the end of the table, moderating the conversation among the ladies of ABC’s “The View” with yet another celebrity with a cause to push. This time it was award-winning actress Helen Hunt, who never talks about her personal life but does make these appearances to push a favorite cause.

The interview was almost over when Ms. Hunt, referring to the recent election, made an off-hand comment that was a put-down of Republicans and people who grow tobacco. The ladies let it go by but later Ms. Vieira was fuming-not just at Ms. Hunt but also at herself for not confronting her guest.

“I was upset at myself that I didn’t say something,” she explained. “One of the things about talk shows that’s very funny is that you’re inviting someone into your home. And I always have trouble with then becoming too adversarial with them. I don’t want to appear rude.

“But it’s also a show of give-and-take. And when she said that, it really angered me. I thought it was a totally cheap shot,” said Ms. Vieira. “I’m upset that I didn’t respond.”

“Many people think there is a liberal bias on the show,” Ms. Vieira said, “and when you let something like that go, that just perpetuates the perception.”

It was a minor incident, but the passion it elicited from Ms. Vieira is an indication of the complex person behind the pretty, maturing face, warm, engaging personality, zany sense of humor and level-headed manner that come across the TV screen.

It is part of a passion for what is right that she first honed as a rising young star in the news business. Today she has left it behind to be a talk and game show host, an advertising spokesperson and a mother and wife. But there are moments, as with Ms. Hunt, when there are glimpses of the newswoman who in 1990 was youngest reporter on “60 Minutes.”

The story of what can be called `”‘ has its roots in her early career. A native of Providence, R.I., and a graduate of Tufts, she began her career in radio and TV in New England before graduating to reporting and anchoring in New York. During the 1980s she worked for CBS News covering politics and won several Emmys. After two years on “60 Minutes,” pregnant with her second child, she quit to raise her family and be with her husband, Richard Cohen, who had been a top producer for CBS News.

She went on to have a third child and to cope with her husband’s illnesses. Mr. Cohen already had multiple sclerosis when Ms. Vieira met him. More recently he battled two bouts of colon cancer. His recent book, “Blindsided,” tells the story of his illnesses. “Meredith’s decision to choose children over the fountain of fame took enormous guts,” he wrote in the book. “That is Meredith. The commitment to family, a determination to be true to self, can see a person through any crisis, including illness.”

It was a choice she made again in 2002, when CBS wooed Ms. Vieira back to host its ratings-impaired morning news show at the same time she was being considered to take the host’s chair for the syndicated version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“There was something appealing about going home [to CBS News],” she recalled recently. “I love so many people there. I’d been there most of my career as a journalist. And they were in third place. … If you’re an old news hound, there’s something neat about going in for the challenge of it, so I did take it seriously as an option. But then I realized it would involve travel from time to time, which I wasn’t interested in at all.”

Michael Davies, producer of “Millionaire,” said he wanted Ms. Vieira because on TV she is “absolutely genuine … an old-school broadcaster. Most of the talent that I like, like Jon Stewart or Oprah Winfrey, you have a great awareness when you are watching them that they’re being themselves.”

Turning down the offer from CBS News gave Ms. Vieira leverage to renegotiate her ABC contact, allowing her to add “Millionaire” to her resume and raising her annual salary to a reported $4 million. “I pitched my heart out and I made [Ms. Vieira] a guarantee that I’ve never had to make to anybody,” Mr. Davies said. “It was probably a foolish guarantee to make. But I told her we’d get her out of the studio by 6:30 every evening so she could go home and have dinner with her family. And except for one technical disaster, we’ve managed to keep that promise.”

Her family, said Ms. Vieira, isn’t impressed by how smart she can be on TV. “They want to know why there isn’t food in the refrigerator,” she said. “Sometimes [it impacts them] in a positive way because I have access to something-whether it’s tickets to a show or something like that. Sometimes it is a negative, mostly on `The View.’ If I bring up something in their lives, I’ll hear about it afterward.”

Would she want them to follow her path? “If they wanted to,” she said. “Absolutely. I don’t have hang-ups about show business.”

Just as she nurtures her family and fellow panelists on “The View,” Ms. Vieira sees her job on “Millionaire” as “raising the comfort level” for the contestants, even if she does tease some of them. “It’s sort of being able to size someone up very quickly and know the best way to help them,” she said. “With some people it’s a joke. With someone else it’s more of a hug, even from a distance. It’s that sense that I am here for you. And with others it’s just sitting quietly. And that’s tricky because people are different.”

She has made choices and she is comfortable with them. She has learned to use her public platform to help others just as she helps her family. She would like to do some acting but knows she really isn’t an actress. She is passionate about politics but would never be a politician. Who is she, really?

She insisted that on TV, “What you see is what you get. I am who I am. I’m very determined. I have a strong ethical foundation.”

The choice she has made, she said, is to simply follow her heart: “Ultimately you answer to yourself and it’s very important that you stay true to yourself. And it’s really hard in this business, and I’m sure most businesses, as you’re climbing and trying to get to the top. There’s a lot of temptations and a lot of times where if you altered your values, it might in the short run pay off. But it never will in the long run.

“I’ve always believed that and tried to instill it in my kids, not always successfully. But I want to be perceived as a nice guy because that’s what I try to be-and sort of a goofball. I embrace the goofiness. I really do. It keeps me young.”