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Strange bedfellows a dime a dozen

For Maria Shriver, the question has become, “Can this marriage be saved?” — referring to the uncomfortable union of her roles as NBC correspondent and First Lady of California.

NBC News’ top brass plan to meet with Shriver this week to discuss her TV career while husband Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor. Yet for all the attention focused on Shriver’s reported participation in helping her husband navigate the byways of Sacramento — which would be a serious ethical problem — she is hardly the only journalist or exec in an awkward spot due to marital entanglements.

Shriver, in fact, has shed light on an issue faced by many in this age of two-career couples, including yours truly — and acknowledged usually with little more than a passing nod to the boss.

Given the steady drumbeat about media bias, her situation also touches upon how much right the public has to know about those who bring them news and information. At least with Shriver, everyone’s aware who her spouse is, which isn’t necessarily true for NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, the New York Times’ Bernie Weinraub and Todd Purdum, Los Angeles Times media columnist Tim Rutten or CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, to name a few.

Those playing along in the “match” game came up with, in sequence, Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman Amy Pascal, former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, defense attorney Leslie Abramson and former State Dept. spokesman Jamie Rubin.

As for moi, as I’ve disclosed before, my wife is the head of publicity for UPN, prompting me to recuse myself from writing about that network. And while avoiding one channel might seem simple enough, the balancing act has become trickier since UPN was placed under the aegis of CBS, which I continue to cover.

At a minimum, vigilance is required to avoid the appearance of impropriety, including what I say about the WB, UPN’s principal rival. And that’s with a spouse who oversees PR, not one who’s the most powerful woman in Hollywood (according to one poll, anyway) or the guy who determines whether mortgage rates are going to climb.

Weinraub eventually shifted away from the film beat, although that hasn’t prevented him from dabbling in related stories. As for Purdum, conservatives pounced on him for negatively reviewing a book that bashed the Clinton administration — an idiotic stretch, but indicative of the kind of nasty accusations the wrong bedfellow can engender.

Rutten, meanwhile, recently wrote a provocative column about the unsavory connection between TV and the judicial system, noting that in the Darwinian competition for talking heads, “The most prized guest of all is a defense attorney still engaged in representing high-profile clients.”

That’s a pretty good description of Abramson, who represented Erik Menendez and served as an ABC News legal analyst during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Rutten’s point of view certainly didn’t benefit his wife (rather the contrary), but he might enjoy a unique perspective, since it once seemed as if the most dangerous place in America was anywhere between Abramson and a TV camera.

Is there a conflict here? Not at all. Is it interesting to know about the relationship, which I’d assume most readers don’t? Absolutely.

Like me, Rutten gets paid to contemplate such matters, and he thinks the ground rules are pretty clear. “You can draw a very bright line any time money’s involved,” he says — especially in California, a community property state.

In terms of disclosure, Rutten rightly points out that it’s easy to become needlessly defensive and thus go overboard. “It’s just as burdensome to be overly scrupulous,” he says.

The Shriver case is nevertheless thorny, because of the perception that she is actively contributing to her husband’s political career. As one colleague pointed out, that would be tantamount to me advising UPN on how to program the network. (For the record, I played no role in conceiving the Tyra Banks series “America’s Next Top Model,” which should be obvious, since my version would have involved pillow-fighting and pie-eating contests.)

That said, some of the sudden indignation toward Shriver has frequently sounded overblown, inasmuch as she has hardly hidden her lineage as part of a powerful political clan or her marriage to one of the world’s most recognizable figures.

So when Aly Colon, an expert in journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute, told the New York Daily News last week, “You would need all kinds of transparency to clue the viewer in, and try to protect the credibility of both the institution and Maria Shriver,” I had to laugh.

To borrow Chandler Bing’s inflection, could there be a more transparent liaison than this one? Also, Maria Shriver isn’t exactly Tom Brokaw or Tim Russert. As journalists go she’s pretty much a lightweight, an attractive presence who can breezily intro stories on “Dateline NBC” and report a few pieces a year that generally make you rethink the diet pill you’re swallowing, not shake the republic.

Clearly, no journalist should directly cover or professionally aid a spouse, but beyond that, in our age of media consolidation, we live in a world of infotainment filled with shades of gray.

It’s a point that has come to mind amid all the hand-wringing over CBS’ “60 Minutes” interview with Michael Jackson and courtship of Jessica Lynch, which were surely unsavory if not blatantly unethical. (Oh, did I just criticize CBS? Oops.)

So where do you draw the line? Can Shriver cover any political stories in light of her family ties to Democrats and marital ties to a Republican? Should Mitchell be able to report a piece that might peripherally impact the economy? Is it a problem when Weinraub writes about Sony’s television arm, given whatever synergies exist with Pascal’s unit?

For many, this is much ado about nothing. Others think reporters should stamp such information — including their party affiliation — on their foreheads.

In general, about all a journalist can do is disclose the truth, encourage healthy skepticism and ask people to believe that they’ll behave with integrity unless proven otherwise.

As for questions of pillow talk, no matter how NBC resolves the Shriver affair, as a taciturn Schwarzenegger antihero once said, they’ll be back.

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