Since Jane Pauley burst upon America’s collective consciousness 40 years ago this week—as a fresh-faced 25-year-old on Oct. 11, 1976, when she began cohosting NBC’s Today program after toiling in local news in her native Indianapolis and Chicago—the television industry and the general culture have changed a great deal, in some ways.
And in other ways, hardly at all.
Pauley—who last weekend comfortably took the helm of CBS Sunday Morning, the No. 1 show in its time slot, and, now 65, can’t escape her fate as a role-model for generations of young women not only in TV news but in other walks of life—came of age during an era when men dominated the business both behind the camera, much as they continue to do now, and in front of it.
It was a time when the sort of sexually abusive male behavior that today generates lurid headlines, ends careers and engulfs presidential campaigns—think Donald Trump and his friend Roger Ailes—was stoically accepted as, at best, an unavoidable nuisance.
Pauley had joined the venerable morning show, opposite cohost Tom Brokaw, as a replacement for the already-legendary Barbara Walters (who’d left the Peacock Network for ABC to become the first female co-anchor of a nightly network news broadcast for a then-eye-popping million-dollar salary).
“Nobody hit on me,” Pauley initially insisted in a borrowed office at CBS News’s West 57th Street studio complex. She added that a quarter century ago when she regularly ran into then-Republican media consultant Ailes, who was featured in weekly political punditry segments on Today opposite Democratic admaker Bob Squier, the future founder of Fox News was on his best behavior.
“It was terrific—that’s all I knew,” Pauley told me about the segments, which ran from 1989 until 1992, noting that she was barely acquainted with Ailes. “Of course not!” she exclaimed with a laugh when I asked if he had ever been inappropriate with her.
“NBC, to my knowledge, was never a culture like that, much less encouraged it,” she said. “Leadership sets the tone, and I never had a bad boss.” Concerning Ailes and Fox News, “the man thought it was his empire. He created an empire, and cultures do get set by the leadership.”
But then, something in our conversation triggered a possibly repressed memory, and Pauley suddenly recalled that yes, even she—as a twenty-something pop-culture icon with a “Midwestern nice” identity—had been forced to grapple with the sort of unwelcome attentions that have been endured by professional women the world over.
“I can tell you one story—of a kind of middish-level executive at NBC who made an advance that was inappropriate. And I just felt so sorry for him,” Pauley confided with a sheepish smile, without identifying the miscreant. “To be specific, he took me to lunch, and in those days that was not unusual to have lunch with a fellow professional. And he did suggest that we should have an affair.
“I didn’t know what he was thinking. I was attached”—to Pulitzer Prize-winning Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who since 1980 has been Pauley’s husband, sharing three adult children and two grandchildren. “I think that’s what I told him. And I was so embarrassed for him.”
Ever-introspective, Pauley contrasted herself with the on-air women whom Ailes harassed at Fox News. “Why did I care about his feelings, when clearly he was trying to take advantage of what he perceived as a position of seniority where he would be capable of helping me advance in my career there? Why did I feel embarrassed for him? And why was I as careful as I was with his feelings?
“And, by the way, over the years, we worked together comfortably.”
Was he married?
“Of course he was!” Pauley fairly shouts. “I think he appreciated that I could have made it so uncomfortable for him, and I didn’t…I should’ve. I would’ve. Today, I wish. I don’t know if I would have handled it any differently. Because young women are vulnerable. But today I’m old enough to look back, and the mystery of why a woman could put up with that, work with it, not call the police or report to human resources, or whatever—why?
“It’s explicable. But maybe you have to be a young woman in that [situation]. It’s not about ambition. In my case, it was not about ‘Uh-oh, I’ll have to handle this with some dexterity—this could hurt me.’ It wasn’t about that at all. I was embarrassed.”
Meanwhile, Pauley’s response to the recent leaked video revealing Trump’s crude and obscene boasts about his sexual abuse of women—to say nothing of the multiplying testimony by the Republican presidential nominee’s alleged victims—is surprisingly clinical.
“My first reaction was more a journalistic reaction. It was ‘here we go again,’ ” Pauley said. “My second reaction was to the public response. I was surprised at how visceral it was.”
It’s safe to say, however, that Pauley—whose first job out of Indiana University, where she’d majored in political science, was a $50-a-week position with the state Democratic Party—won’t be voting for the yellow-tressed former Apprentice star.
Tom Brokaw, meanwhile, recalled in an email to The Daily Beast: “From the moment I first met Jane—before we were twinned on TODAY—I was deeply impressed by her grounded Midwestern sensibilities.
“As a pioneer of her gender and generation in the white hot environment of the rapidly changing demands of broadcast news and morning television she had an inner compass that got her through difficult passages and win the hearts and minds of viewers.
“For Meredith and me Jane and Garry are family. They met at our dinner table and that evening remains one of the signature moments of our life.The two of them are the enduring homecoming king and queen for America.
Pauley’s new gig at CBS Sunday Morning—which came about almost serendipitously, after she started doing pieces for the award-winning, 37-year-old magazine show which in January 2014 featured her book about baby boomers like herself reinventing their lives—has arrived at the perfect moment.
“There has never been a better time in my life to pack my bags and head out on the road,” she said, noting that her kids are long out of the house and starting families of their own.
“NBC sent me all over the world—an audience with the Pope at the Vatican, the Great Wall of China, the Sydney Opera House, waving at the queen, royal wedding, and I never wanted to go. I had small children at home—and so I allowed myself to torture myself [for being away from them].”
But starting in April 2014—when she began doing CBS Sunday Morning profiles of everyone from best-selling author Mitch Albom to fellow Hoosier David Letterman (to the one scheduled for this coming Sunday on Sarah Jessica Parker)—Pauley could work full-time and travel, happily and guilt-free.
That CBS would choose her to succeed the retiring Charles Osgood, who anchored the program for 22 years, having replaced Charles Kuralt—is testament to her near-miraculous durability in front of the camera.
“I have theories about everything—and now I can back it up with some empirical evidence finally,” Pauley said about her on-air longevity.
A dozen years ago, network suits—who are usually loathe to share such secrets with what they pejoratively refer to as “the talent”—finally trusted Pauley with decades of audience research that showed that what viewers valued most was her “authenticity.”
“I remember back when there were performance reviews, and I would be told about some magazine article that said, ‘If only Jane would be more like Barbara, or get out more like Diane Sawyer or whatever. And I would be told all these things—and then I would continue with my life.”
Pauley punctuated the memory with a convulsive laugh.
“I wasn’t being stubborn. But that wasn’t me. If somebody had said, ‘Jane, honey, just go out there and be yourself,’ I wouldn’t have known what that meant. It turns out that’s what I was doing.”
Pauley, for instance, prides herself on never having hired a personal publicist to spin her public image.
“As my husband once said about a public relations strategy, there isn’t a more low-maintenance one than just ‘be yourself.’ Then you don’t have to update your persona.”
Pauley recalled: “Once my daughter was 14 and mad at me for some reason—and she hurled this at me: ‘You’re a bad celebrity!’…And I probably took it as a compliment.”
Although she had worked in television here and there since she briefly hosted an eponymous syndicated daytime show in 2004, Pauley had not been an on-air fixture for the better part of a decade; as a working mom, she had spent 11 years anchoring NBC’s Dateline and enjoyed a 13-year run at Today, from which she walked away, shocking network execs who had grafted Deborah Norville—the show’s younger, blonder news reader—onto the couch with Bryant Gumbel in one of NBC’s periodic PR fiascos.
“They couldn’t understand that I was not trying to negotiate a way to stay, and that I was trying not to make a deal but to undo something,” Pauley recalled. “Garry was just sitting back in astonishment. I was navigating that all by myself.”
Much like NBC execs’ catastrophic mishandling of Ann Curry’s departure 23 years later, the public backlash to Pauley’s treatment in this “All About Eve” scenario was at once damaging and severe. The suits had woefully undervalued Pauley’s irreplaceable importance to the program, and ratings and advertising revenue promptly crashed.
Norville, who today anchors the syndicated show Inside Edition, didn’t last long at Today. Yet Pauley, who today praises Norville as smart and talented, claims she took little pleasure in NBC’s troubles.
“I would have felt very guilty that I left behind friends and colleagues who were going to have to claw the program back,” she said. “But I am capable of having bad thoughts, and sure, I’m a pretty regular human being on that score.”
For someone so seemingly grounded, self-assured and dazzlingly successful, Pauley is unusually open to acknowledging personal fragility.
At age 50, after suffering severe depression and other mood disorders, she was diagnosed with a bi-polar brain illness that was serious enough to put her in the hospital. It turned out that the condition—which requires her to take daily medications—was the result of bad chemistry between depression drugs and the steroids she took to combat recurring hives.
“Mental health is an important area of advocacy for me,” said Pauley, who is a member of the leadership board of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There is an abundance of scientific evidence that giving help is also getting it. Every time I’m able to do my advocacy thing and tell my story is probably a booster shot to my own wellbeing.”