Shirlington, Va. — A TROIKA of knowledgeable newswomen has emerged triumphant from the electronic scramble for supremacy in television coverage of the Iran-contra hearings during the last few weeks. Judy Woodruff, Elizabeth Drew, and Cokie Roberts - the PBS contingent providing gavel-to-gavel daytime coverage and evening summaries on ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' - are being hailed as the only straightforward, no-nonsense commentary in town, shorn of the breathless wonderment for which the commercial networks have been criticized. (Coverage of the hearings - which resume today with Attorney General Edwin Meese in the spotlight - is available on PBS to about half the nation.)
Praise for their coverage has poured in from a wide range of viewers, including a spectrum of columnists from William F. Buckley Jr. to Carl Bernstein - and, most enthusiastically, from feminists. ``Woodruff, Drew, and Roberts are doing as much for the women's movement as they are doing for the rest of America,'' says Kate Rand Lloyd, editor at large of Working Woman magazine.
The three women are extraordinarily well qualified for the jobs they are performing. Ms. Woodruff is chief correspondent for ``MacNeil/Lehrer'' and served as White House correspondent for NBC from 1977 to 1982. She covered the national party conventions and presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980. Her husband is Albert R. Hunt, Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
Ms. Drew served as Washington editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1967 to '73; from 1971 to '73, she was host of the PBS interview show ``Thirty Minutes With....'' She and Bill Moyers anchored PBS coverage of the 1972 conventions. Author of six books on politics, she covers politics for The New Yorker, appears often on ``Meet the Press'' and ``Face the Nation,'' and is a regular commentator on the syndicated TV show ``Agronsky & Co.'' Her husband, David Webster, is former New York bureau chief of the BBC.
Ms. Roberts, former president of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association, is best known for her work as correspondent for National Public Radio's ``Morning Edition'' and ``All Things Considered.'' She is now also congressional correspondent for ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,'' and is contributing to the gavel-to-gavel coverage from her vantage point outside the hearing rooms.
Her father, Rep. Hale Boggs (D) of Louisiana, disappeared in a plane accident and his seat was taken by her mother, Lindy, who has continued to be reelected to the House. Roberts's husband, Steven, is a reporter for The New York Times.
Here, in a vast, nearly empty sound stage at the PBS/WETA studios in Shirlington, Va., surrounded by two cameras and a barrage of lofty spotlights, Woodruff and Drew watch the monitors bringing them the pool coverage of the hearings. Woodruff sits at a desk on a raised platform, the same desk that will appear on camera during the breaks in the hearings, when the two women discuss the proceedings.
Drew, trying to cope with a back problem, reclines on an adjustable hospital bed, completing the near-surrealist picture of these two women isolated in their odd, arctic-cold environment. They watch the monitors intently, seldom talking to each other while the hearings proceed, looking away only to scribble notes on their pads. A few minutes before the hearing is due to break, the makeup woman appears on the set to brush their hair and fix their eye and lip makeup. There's no joking here. But as Drew takes her position next to Woodruff on the platform, the few remarks exchanged indicate a spirit of camaraderie.
At lunch break, Drew consents to being interviewed.
``I've never done anything quite like this coverage,'' she says. ``It feels like a high-wire act a lot of the time ... a very complicated subject which people feel so strongly about. The political stakes are high, too. So, between that and listening to very complicated stuff and quickly determining what is important and how you ought to explain it ... and getting all that across ... is quite a challenge.
``But,'' she shrugs, ``I'm enjoying it.''
What does Drew feel the hearing is all about? ``The Constitution. Accountability. Checks and balances. That's really what this is all about. I try to explain what they're doing, but not get so caught up in the daily ebbs and flows or how many telegrams Oliver North got.
``I thought it was important to keep listening to what North was saying and the implications of what he was saying. Certainly I took note of the phenomenon going on, but our focus stayed on what the committee was doing and what the hearings were showing.
``When the history books are written about these hearings, they will not be about how many telegrams Colonel North received. These hearing are about a breakdown in the constitutional process. They're about a series of events in which the checks and balances failed. The diversion and whether or not the President knew is a question, but not the question.''
Drew says she is struck by the number of conservatives who feel the same way.
``One night I received a call from a strong Reagan supporter in the administration. He said that I was right about the breakdown of the constitutional process, and he wanted to tell me that as a conservative he believes the same thing and he wanted me to continue saying so. Conservatives want to conserve the constitutional processes.''
The most important effect of the hearings is already taking place, Drew says: ``People are becoming better informed about the whole matter. Opinion spreads in this country in strange and mysterious ways. It may take a while, but I think that the idea that something went quite wrong has been sinking in.''
Woodruff has dashed from the ground-floor sound stage to her office upstairs, where she is going over the hearings coverage that will appear on the evening show. ``Please edit out the crunching of my Doritos,'' she laughs as she munches away.
``We perform our major service,'' she says, ``by never talking over the witnesses, letting the hearings speak for themselves. Even those long pauses when [Rear Adm. John] Poindexter and North consulted with their lawyers tells viewers volumes about what's going on. The questions they consult on are important to note, too.''
What would constitute successful coverage of the hearings?
``If people have the best possible understanding of what's going on,'' Woodruff says.
``While for some people it may be enough to sit and listen to the hearings, for many it is far better to have informed analysis in addition to the raw coverage. And that's what Elizabeth, Cokie, and I provide. With all the experience among the three of us, we bring an added dimension to the coverage that you wouldn't get by just watching the hearings.
``Every night we are talking to people on the committee, on the staff, trying to find out where they are going with the testimony, what it means, where they are going tomorrow, how to put things in context. Elizabeth has been terrific in bringing us back to the question of constitutionality and what happened to the rule of law.
``It would be so easy, particularly in the case of the North testimony, to let it all dissolve into a dissection of personality. We could have sat around talking about his great personality and whether or not he was managing to snow America. But while that was a part of the story, it was important not to allow people to forget that there was also the question of what he had done, how it squared with what [Robert] McFarlane [the former national-security adviser] and [Major Gen. Richard] Secord said.
``If we can do that for people, then we've accomplished our objective.''