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Maria Shriver juggles old and new roles

LOS ANGELES -- On Nov. 28, Maria Shriver slipped back into her anchor chair at NBC's "Dateline." Less than two weeks later, she made a speech in which she derided legislators as children in need of a timeout, and then helped broker a California budget compromise.

For someone who was famous before she became a journalist, this juggling act may seem like part of a rich, exciting life. Others see something wrong with this picture, at least down the road.

"We're a little in uncharted territory," said Thomas Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "We've never had a governor whose wife is a TV journalist."

Aly Colon, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism think tank, said NBC ought to be aggressively "transparent" about Shriver's role by releasing a statement specifying the stories she will and will not cover.

Neither Shriver nor her boss, NBC News President Neal Shapiro, could be reached for comment, but NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust said, "Maria and Neal are in talks about how we will go forward with her."

In October, Shapiro told the Los Angeles Times that once Shriver returned to work, the network would make sure she worked on no stories involving California politics or her husband. Shriver took a leave of absence during the campaign.

An NBC News source, stressing that no decisions have been made, said that given how tricky even the first few weeks have proved, Shriver may go on another leave of absence until her husband's term ends.

Shriver is hardly the first broadcast journalist to juggle the ethics of journalism with the demands of public life. ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" host was formerly a high-ranking official in the Clinton White House, and ABC News personality Diane Sawyer was once a staff member in the Nixon White House. Donna Hanover hosted a program on Fox while she was married to then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. (They've since divorced.)

NBC sources also say that Shriver has worked flexible, sometimes reduced, hours as a contributing anchor for "Dateline," reporting on eight to ten stories per year. The last story she reported was on June 17, about Botox scandals in Hollywood.

Even so, possible tensions between Shriver's roles emerged in a recent report on the backstage role she played last week in helping the governor get a fiscal plan before California voters, even though she's technically back at work at NBC.

Shriver, while clearly among many players involved, took part in a conference call with the governor and his advisers and attended meetings to hammer out a proposal. She also conferred with Leon E. Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, on ways to break the deadlock.

"She was not involved in any governmental decisions," the governor's spokesman, Rob Stutzman, said last week. "The first lady has a traditional office, the office of special projects. In her capacity as first lady, she had a role in the inauguration and she passed out food at a food bank. The only consulting she does with the governor is as a confidante in their roles as husband and wife."

Some wonder how easily Shriver can maintain an appearance of objectivity as a member of the news media if she continues to be involved in the business of California. Orville Schell, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, describes Shriver's position at "Dateline" as a "very slippery slope."

"There's an advocacy side to being a politician's wife and to be actively involved means that every single assignment has to be judged before she takes it on," he said. "This is where a sense of good ethics and good practices is extremely important for anyone who describes himself as a good journalist."

Schell said the public perception that the news could be biased is enough for Shriver to step down as a broadcaster. "She ought to make some clear statement about what she intends to do. It might behoove her to say, `I'm now in the political realm,' " and step away.

Rosenstiel said NBC has to guard against two kinds of conflicts: one in which Shriver might have divided allegiances, and a more subtle form in which she merely appeared to have a conflict of interest, which would still "make it difficult for the public to accept her as an independent arbiter of fact."

Shriver has said she is anticipating the newfound scrutiny she might experience. At a luncheon Thursday in Sacramento, she told of being approached by a journalist at the Sacramento Food Bank before Thanksgiving.

The reporter "came up to me and said, `So now, how is this going to work? You know, you've got the journalism, you've got the mother thing, the first lady. . . . ' I cut him off, I said, `I have no clue how it's going to work.' But I knew that I had to go back to NBC, because I knew that there were more stories that I wanted to tell. How will it work? Will I stay? How will I juggle? I have no idea.

"So to all the people who have said to me, and many have, `Look, California needs a great first lady far more than we need another journalist,' that may be so," she added. "But I've got to learn it for myself."

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