CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — FOR Charlayne Hunter-Gault, journalism is like solving a puzzle: "I like to make the complex simple; I love the challenge of unraveling complex problems."
Under a yellow-and-white canopy planted amid the white begonias of Radcliffe yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the national correspondent for PBS's "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" was given Radcliffe College's Alumnae Asociation Medal for her "outstanding contributions to the community of women" last Friday.
In an interview before the ceremony, Ms. Hunter-Gault talked about how her upbringing and experiences have shaped her approach to journalism.
With a smile as warm as the sunshine beaming in the tall windows of this century-old women's institution, Hunter-Gault said she was blessed with a certain kind of "interior" that helps her transcend a situation and report it fairly. She calls it a "moral compass."
The first black woman to graduate from the University of Georgia, Hunter-Gault says her mother and grandmother provided her with a value system, "a clear definition of right and wrong, moral and immoral, just and unjust."
Her experiences at the University of Georgia - as one of two black students admitted by federal decree in 1961 - also shaped her, for there she endured racial slurs and continuous press coverage. She spent a lot of time in college watching reporters watch her, she says. That allowed her to distance herself from a stressful situation. "That was a big part of the salvation for me," she says. "I was not in it, but observing it."
But even the intensity of that experience could not prepare her for some of the situations she has found herself in since then.
She recalls a particularly difficult assignment. She traveled to South Africa in 1985, where she faced apartheid. "I had experienced this in a way in the South, but I wasn't sure how I would react," she says.
Hunter-Gault was interviewing a "shebeen queen" (a woman who runs an illegal bar), when she found herself overwhelmed by emotion. "The woman was beaten within an inch of her life by agents of the state ... who suspected her of political activity," she recounts. The woman's body was covered with large bruises. There were whip welts on her back, and scabs on her head.
Hunter-Gault was horrified. "I am a black woman..... How could I not relate to this?"
The seasoned print and television reporter had to excuse herself. She went outdoors where, "I collapsed and sobbed." Some of those present followed her and tried to console her. "That did it for me," she says. "Here the poor woman was inside, and they were consoling me. I got out of the victim role" and reported the story.
When she covered the 1992 famine in Somalia, she found a different story: "While everyone else was saying 'catastrophe,' I saw wonderful things happening with women who said, 'Let's help resolve these conflicts.' ''
Covering a multitude of topics, she says she's found a "great reservoir of goodness, caring, creativity, commitment out there. We just don't report it."
That reminds her of the bad press the rising generation has received, being labeled a "lost generation." Hers was the "activist generation," she notes, but not everyone participated, and it took time to become active. The United States Supreme Court's decision outlawing segregation came down in 1954, but "we didn't get active until 1959, '60, '61.
"The fact that you don't have kids marching in the streets doesn't mean you can indict a whole generation. Young people are doing things. They're working as tutors in the inner city, working in soup kitchens, volunteers in all sorts of ways."
In her speech, Hunter-Gault said her role models were "Not just any women, but women with extraordinary vision." She credits her grandmother, mother, and "Mrs. Evans" (a teacher who believed in her) - as well as the gutsy female comic-strip newswoman Brenda Starr - for her start.
Hunter-Gault was discouraged from pursuing a journalism career by her high school counselor. He told her that she should go to Spelman, a black women's college in Atlanta, and become a teacher.
But her mother and grandmother encouraged her to dream; "dreams are the things that propel ambition," they told her.
She closed with a warning: Two-thirds of the American public relies on TV news. "I am concerned about the impact on deliberation, contemplation. Is what we're seeing, reading - adding to our knowledge, wisdom, or are we being lulled into thinking we're informed, when we're being entertained, manipulated?"
She called on the Radcliffe women to "take us to task if you're not getting what you need to understand the issues today."
To loud applause and laughter, she added: "Weighing in really does make a difference, and for once - for women - the heavier you weigh in, the better."