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News director, NBC maverick, sets new tone

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

When Paula Madison was asked to talk about her work to a group of religion public relations professionals, she agreed, although as news director of WNBC in New York her days are tightly scheduled. In exchange for her time, she asked the group for only one thing -- that they pray for her and her staff.

Madison wanted their prayers to help her reach her goal of making her news programs No. 1 in every time period. This would be any news director’s goal in the ratings-driven world of television, but Madison’s desire to achieve top status is part of a larger plan. Since becoming news director in 1996, she has downplayed sensationalism, looked for stories about “the least among us” and increased religion coverage. She has hoped to prove that if local news could set a different tone and still be successful, other stations would follow suit.

“I have no problem seeing myself as a missionary,” Madison told NCR. “I genuinely believe God put me here for a reason. I see myself as an agent of change for the better.”

Madison reached her goal last year when “News Channel 4” closed out the November ratings period as the market’s news leader, finishing first in all local newscasts for the first time in 16 years.

Religion is one area she has especially focused on, she said. “Many, many people are interested in religion, and yet it gets virtually no news coverage, or it’s not covered well. There’s a natural, healthy skepticism journalists bring to the table, but very many journalists are uncomfortable with the concept of faith. When some reporters approach the topic of religion, they walk in with an almost antagonistic tone.”

Madison, 47, makes it clear to her reporters that for any assignment they must be respectful of people’s time and “fully equipped with information when they go, and not stumbling and asking questions that waste people’s time.”

She also prays for herself and her staff everyday. “I pray that we exercise good judgment and have the wisdom to make the right decisions, that we can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. We’re able to point a camera on issues. I don’t want to just put stories on the air that deal with sensational issues and blow things up. I want measured, reasonable discourse, to look at and understand other points of view. Maybe then we can leave the world a better place than we found it.”

In February, she was given an additional opportunity to do that. She was appointed vice president of diversity for NBC, allowing her to direct the network’s efforts to ensure full inclusiveness in its staffing. For this position, she reports directly to NBC president Bob Wright.

If Madison’s views seem different from those of other news directors, maybe it’s because her life has been different. She grew up on welfare in Harlem, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Crack use was part of one family member’s story, and she had to take in three nieces for a while when problems arose in their homes.

“She’s a product of who she is and where she came from and her great life story,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association in Washington. “She offers high quality, which serves the community well, and she’s gotten the audience to support it.”

Neil Hickey, editor-at-large for Columbia Journalism Review, said Madison’s job puts her “in the pantheon” of television news. He says the news director selects on- and off-screen personnel, sets the tone, discipline and style of the newsroom and chooses the set design and equipment. “The news director can make a big difference by the choices he or she makes about what the program is to be and how it will be different from the competition,” he said.

Madison’s efforts on behalf of religion coverage included two half-hour specials on Pope John Paul II’s March visit to Israel. She sent an anchorman, reporters, producer and a crew -- a total of nine people -- to the country a week in advance to begin exploring issues in the Holy Land. When the pope arrived, she ran live coverage nightly for about 10 days.

She ordered similar coverage when the pope went to Cuba in 1998, sending 25 people, 12 of whom went early to set the scene with stories on Cuba today and the role of religion in the country. This coverage included a report on a decrepit synagogue and its worshipers.

She also created a seven-minute segment called “Your Spirit,” which appears every Sunday morning on “Weekend Today in New York.” For this, clergy and members of religious communities discuss issues of faith or add their voices to a major story of the day.

For her efforts, Madison was honored by the Tri-State Catholic Committee on Radio and Television with its TRISCCORT award. “Under her leadership, the stories on her news broadcast are not exploitative,” said Joseph Zwilling, the committee’s vice president. “We looked at the sensitivity she brought to handling news in general and in particular news of religion.”

Zwilling’s organization is made up of representatives of dioceses and religious orders in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut media market who meet monthly “to better facilitate a Catholic presence on the air.”

“Paula is always most gracious to meet with us,” said Zwilling, who is also representative for the New York archdiocese. “Under Paula’s leadership invariably those we deal with are informed, knowledgeable and respectful about what the church is all about.”

Madison’s own journey is rooted in the Catholic church. Growing up in Harlem, she attended St. Rose of Lima Church and went through 12 years of Catholic school. She left the church for four years in the 1970s to become a Muslim. During this time her daughter, Imani, now 24, was born; Imani, which means faithin Arabic, remains a Muslim. For several years, Madison practiced no religion, then returned to Catholicism.

“For all the questions I had as a child, a student and a young woman, it still gives me a sense of comfort,” she said. “It feels like home -- the sacraments, inside the church, going up to the altar rail, getting on my knees.”

She and her husband, Roosevelt Madison -- Tom Brokaw’s make-up artist -- belong to Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where they live. Asked why she chooses a church in which neither women nor blacks have occupied positions of authority, she said she wishes both were more a part of the decision-making process. “Women are not the ones seated at the head of the table making calls, but women are influential,” she said.

As for the place of African-Americans in the church, Madison recalls a worse time. Her husband was part of the first wave of students who integrated Catholic schools in New Orleans. “My husband was part of a bad period in the history of the Catholic church. You have to push and fight for progress.”

She says the church will grow more representative as more people of color become involved. “It’s a slow process, but I came back,” she said. “You take it bruises and all. Nobody ever said it would be perfect.”

Madison remains close to many of the sisters who taught her. Sister of Charity Irene Fugazy, her French teacher at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, sent a prayer she says for Madison and her staff daily as part of her evening office: “Spirit of God, grant wisdom, understanding and fortitude to all involved in the media. Let the highest values and principles govern their decisions and programs.”

Fugazy said she believes her prayers are answered. “From what I see and experience, she’s an extremely dedicated woman of high principles, devoted to her faith. She’s an extraordinarily good woman.”

Madison credited her first 12 years of school with helping shape the news professional she has become. “Catholic school focused me on taking a look at what someone has versus what someone doesn’t have and how we can use journalism to tell their stories,” she said. “I think I have an open heart.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000