It should have been a triumphant week for CBS' 60 Minutes. On March 3, Ed Bradley's talk with reporter Bob Simon, who had just been released by Iraq, drew one of the show's largest audiences this season. But 60 Minutes was also making headlines that weren't pleasing anyone at CBS. A Feb. 27 meeting between executive producer Don Hewitt and reporter Meredith Vieira had ended in her dismissal from the show, prompting accusations of sexism and countercharges of poor work and bad faith.
Vieira was a rising star at CBS and the mother of a newborn baby boy, Benjamin, when she joined 60 Minutes two years ago as a part-time correspondent, filing 10 or 11 stories a year instead of the 22 reported by her male colleagues. Next fall, under an agreement made when Hewitt hired her, she was to assume full-time responsibilities. But when Vieira became pregnant again (her baby is due this summer), she asked Hewitt to let her continue working part-time. ''I said, 'Why spoil such a good thing?''' Vieira recalls. ''But it went over like a lead balloon.''
Contending that 60 Minutes needed full-time reporters and that extending her light schedule through next season would place an unfair burden on Bradley, Steve Kroft, Morley Safer, and Mike Wallace, Hewitt dropped her. Though Vieira has been asked to fulfill her reported $500,000-a-year contract and come up with ideas for a new role at CBS, her position on the network's highest-profile series is gone.
Vieira, 37, who is married to former CBS News producer Richard Cohen, had some reason to think Hewitt would accommodate her only last fall CBS rearranged its schedule with a great show of enthusiasm in response to Connie Chung's desire to have a baby. Instead, Vieira collided with Hewitt's determination to have a full-time correspondent. ''You don't come looking for a job you can't do, and convince [your employers] you can do it, and then one day say, 'No, I gotta tell you, I can't,''' Hewitt insists. ''Meredith said to me, 'People [with children] like Jane Pauley and Barbara Walters weren't required to travel as much.' I said, 'But, Meredith, we've been on the air 20 years. You knew what we did here.'''
Responds Vieira, ''I understand his point of view, but I think it could have been a real trailblazing thing for 60 Minutes. As women come up in this business, people are not putting families on hold. I would have loved them to say, 'We're in a position to try something creative.' I didn't go into this job misleading anybody. I was extremely direct about wanting a family. I had every intention of fulfilling my end of the agreement, and when I realized I couldn't, I was up front about it as soon as possible.''
Although 60 Minutes has functioned this season with six correspondents, two of them part-time (the other, Kroft, will become full-time next fall), Hewitt remained adamant. ''If you have six people, they only appear twice a month, and the audience loses familiarity with them. This game is played with five people. And to show up once in a while doesn't cut the mustard.''
But Hewitt's displeasure apparently extended to Vieira's stories, which included a profile of hearing-impaired Gallaudet University head King Jordan and a look at racism at job agencies. ''They just disappeared,'' he says. ''Do you remember any Meredith Vieira stories? Nobody does. Look, in a nutshell, if Meredith Vieira had created half as much attention working with us as she's created complaining about us, I would have turned handsprings to keep her here. I would have said, 'I don't care whether she works a half or a quarter she's just so good, we've got to have her.' It never happened.''
''I've never had anybody in the past question the quality of my work,'' replies Vieira, previously an Emmy-winning correspondent on West 57th. ''Of the first five stories I did for 60 Minutes, three won awards.''
Network insiders have suggested that Vieira, the youngest reporter on the 60 Minutes staff, never fit into a male-dominated show. Hewitt disagrees. ''She brought her baby!'' he says. ''I set up a nursery so she could nurse her baby in the office. You know who was horrified at that? The women around here who had had their babies and gone back to work. They couldn't believe it.'' He says Vieira's attire also raised eyebrows. ''Her coming in in blue jeans never , bothered me. It bothered everyone else. One of the girls said, 'For Christ's sake, the cleaning women come in here looking better than that.'
''I said, 'This woman is worth waiting for to become one of us.' And then one day, she said, 'I can't become one of you.' What have I been waiting for all these years? Why did I set up a nursery?''
Vieira's dismissal drew fire from a number of executives and reporters. ''I think it's gratuitously cruel,'' says former CBS Morning News executive producer Jon Katz. ''Meredith Vieira has established a track record as a competent journalist, and at 60 Minutes, there have been allowances made for male correspondents.'' Indeed, when Harry Reasoner decided to reduce his duties, the show created a new role for him next fall: editor emeritus.
But others in the news industry see no double standard. ''It's business,'' says veteran TV newswoman Linda Ellerbee. ''When you take that job, you know it's a suitcase job whose basic nature almost precludes an outside life. And CBS has treated her very well. She gets to keep her job and work reduced hours all she lost was a show. A lot of mothers who say, 'I'd like to keep my job and work 50 percent of the time' would have no job the next day.''
By week's end, Hewitt and Vieira were calling a truce, with Hewitt asserting ''great respect'' for his departing staffer, and Vieira wishing 60 Minutes well. Meanwhile, Hewitt's list of candidates to replace Vieira has narrowed to two: Bob Simon and 20-year CBS News veteran Lesley Stahl.
But don't expect the choice to be made quickly. Says Hewitt: ''I don't want to make any more mistakes.''