Out of the public eye – Bryant Gumbel – Cover Story – Interview

For fifteen years, Bryant Charles Gumbel was a part of America’s
morning ritual. As the co-host of NBC’s Today Show, he would meet you
at the morning breakfast table, wide-eyed and brimming with the new
day’s headlines and trivia, which he delivered with his easy smile,
sharp intellect, and quirky wit.

He was the first African American broadcaster to co-host a
nationally televised morning show, proving to skeptics that Americans
could, indeed, embrace the idea of receiving their morning dose of news
and chitchat from a Black man.

In 1997, Gumbel ended his quarter-century association with NBC to
explore other opportunities. Now forty-nine, he is the principal
partner of CBS EYEMARK, the syndication company of CBS Inc., which aims
to produce primetime specials for the network, among other projects.
Though his most recent show, Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel, was
canceled earlier this summer, he appears undaunted about the future.

The day Black Issues Executive Editor Cheryl D. Fields came to
interview Gumbel at his CBS office in Manhattan, the soulfully robust
voice of Patti LaBelle wafted in the background. Surrounded by books,
dozens of teddy bears, and golf paraphernalia, among other memorabilia,
this multiple Emmy-Award-winning broadcaster talked about the current
state of broadcast journalism, the status of Blacks in higher
education, and the terrain he has covered since graduating from Bates
College with a liberal arts degree in 1970. The following is excerpted
from that conversation:

From where you sit, where are we in terms of diversity in the news business?

Not very well off, and I say that on two counts. Numerically,
[African Americans] clearly not as well represented as either we should
be or as anybody hoped we would be by this time. But also in a larger
and, perhaps, more troubling context, I wonder to what extent this has
something to do with the nature of the business.

As it’s presently constituted, I don’t know that it’s that
important to worry about gaining numbers. It certainly was, the way the
business [used to be] set up and the impact it had, in terms of setting
an agenda and pursuing real issues and dealing in things that are
important. But to deal with Cher? To deal with Carly Simon’s breast
cancer? Should we really worry that half the people who are doing that
are people of color?

I don’t mean to throw water on it, it’s just that I tend to sit
here and think we probably should have better and loftier goals.

The Today Show, however, had a little bit to do with where we are now. Wouldn’t you say?

No doubt about that. I am not absolving myself of blame, but the
Today Show as an example, is a very good one. When I started on the
Today Show, there was rarely a week that went by that I didn’t do a
story on the economy, or a story on race, or a story on the Mideast
struggles. And I would venture to say that by the time that I left, if
we did one a month on those topics, that was much more the norm.

So, I’m not saying that it isn’t important that we be represented
in what sets the agenda in this country and in what initiates and
continues the dialogue. I just wonder whether this medium is relevant
anymore, in an important sense.

It seems that the industry has tried to diversify its public face
much more aggressively than it has tried to diversify itself behind the
scenes. What are the biggest obstacles to that, in your opinion? And
did The Today Show do a better job of diversifying behind the camera
than other shows?

I thought we did a decent job. I don’t want to say, “a very good
job,” because I don’t think we did a very good job. I thought we did a
decent job.

For my part, I was much more preoccupied with making sure that the
guests we put on represented a diversified group…. Television’s habit
was that you would bring out someone of color whenever the issue was
civil rights, whenever the issue was welfare, whenever the issue was a
social program, whenever the issue was food stamps, whenever the issue
was poverty. I wanted to make sure that we had people of color whenever
the issue was economics, or foreign policy, or trade, or health, so
that we stopped stamping things as `Black issues.’

So [diversifying our approach to issue coverage] is something of
which I was very, very proud — much more proud of that than I am of
what happened behind the scenes. But [the process] wasn’t
institutionalized.

There is this discussion in some journalism circles — and maybe
this would be most applicable in broadcast journalism — that the way
to be successful is by not being too Black. To do otherwise, is to take
a real risk professionally. In your opinion, has this been proven?

I am probably a bad one to ask because … my voice carried’ more impact than somebody who was an unknown.

But to answer your question, I think it is a legitimate and valid
concern … and certainly a problem of which the majority of executives
who are not accustomed to dealing with people of color are inclined to
take the easy way out.

If you voice something that gives them a problem, or they’re
uncomfortable dealing with it, or they feel that if they deal with it
in a negative sense then they’ll be labeled as racist, then they
figure, `Better I don’t have to deal with it at all.’ So, you get the
old thing about not having a colored problem because a colored problem
is a race problem and at this company, we only have one race. You get
an awful lot of that.

It’s not unusual, in this business or any other, for executives to
surround themselves with people with whom they get along. That’s the
truth. And that applies to strictly Black organizations as well as
strictly White organizations. So it’s not surprising that White
executives would choose to say, `Well, I don’t want to have those
people around me because they are going to ask me unpleasant,
uncomfortable questions.’ And I think that happens a lot.

Do you feel that, as someone of your stature, there’s sort of a dual standard of responsibility for carrying these issues?

Yes, somewhat. I mean, my problem with it is … the same Black
folks are called upon to circulate in the business — the same ten or
twelve or fifteen or eighteen of us. And whenever contracts are up,
there is a huge bidding war because, apparently, we are the only ones
there. Nobody wants to cultivate new ones. Nobody wants to cut the
cards and try to find something that they may not know what they’re
getting … It’s sad. I mean it’s amusing, but it’s also very, very sad.

You came to the Today Show in 1982, but what do you consider as your career breakthrough event?

I had come out of sports as kind of a rebellious kind of person who
wasn’t anxious to take over the Today Show. They kind of thought I’d do
a trip, stumble, fall, and say, “Thank you, Massa”, for making me the
Today program guy…. When they first talked to me about salary, I
said, “You know, I’m going to stay in sports. I’m fine. I’m happy. See
you around.” And so that’s kind of the way I was all the time.

I think in terms of public perceptions of me and what I did and the
way I did things, the Moscow trip was as much a turning point as
anything. I think it was in, it might have been September of 1983. The
arms talks had broken down and it seems ridiculous now to think about
going to Moscow being a big deal. But up until then, the programs had
not originated from Moscow. And we were walking a fine line between
going in there and being seen as dupes of the Communist government, or
going in there and being seen as inhospitable guests. And it was one of
those, “Heads you win, tails I lose.”

Nonetheless, we were able to walk that tightrope very effectively
and at the same time conduct a program that basically reopened the arms
talks. That was a turning point in terms of perceptions of what I was
doing.

When in your career did you make the decision to do the Today Show
broadcast from Africa, and how difficult was it for you to convince the
network to let you do it?

[The decision] came about five years before we went. We went in
1992, so I would guess it would be about 1987 or 1988, somewhere in
there.

It really was kind of an obvious choice for me. By that point the
Today Show had gained a degree of fame for traveling, and we had
traveled in programs from every continent. We had done, obviously,
North America, South America, Australia, Europe, Asia. It seemed to me
that there was a glaring omission which was hard to justify.

I just thought that visually and editorially, [Africa] was a land
of wonderful opportunities. As you well know, what every reporter loves
is a story that is untapped. Over there, there are a million untapped
stories because America ignores them. If two kids get hit by a truck in
London, they do an hour special. If a bus turns over in Nairobi and one
hundred Black folks get killed, it’s a line of agate type on the bottom
of your television screen.

[The Africa production] remains to this day the single trip of
which I am most proud. I really am, because at its best, television in
general — and the Today Show, in particular– should be about telling
people and showing people what they otherwise wouldn’t know. And that,
to me, is what that trip did.

You have succeeded in a business where many others have failed. Why is that?

This is as immodest as I will ever be. I have always been inclined
to say that nobody should view my success as any great largesse on the
part of the networks. Plain and simple, my level of success in this
business, whatever it is, I think, says a lot more about me than it
says about their willingness to give opportunity to people. They had
somebody who was able to do the job and do it effectively, so it worked.

But I never had any illusions about that. I knew that if it ever
totally went south, they would love to see my head hang in the square.
But that’s okay, too. That’s the way business works.

Let me ask you about a news story that continues to unfold.
Affirmative action is crumbling around us — particularly in higher
education. What’s your take on the way the media has covered this story?

This Sunday’s New York Times (May 17, 1998) had a wonderful cartoon
— I don’t know if you saw it or not. What the cartoon says in a series
of panels is, “First we create a drum beat, then we create a statistic
to support the drumbeat, then we manage to say that a lot of people are
talking about it, and then the media picks up on it. And once the media
picks up on it, you’ve won because we’ve created a fact.”

I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s what’s happened in this case.
The far right kept talking about the evils of affirmative action and
talking about it and talking about it — so much so that after a while,
people started saying, “Oh, yeah. Everybody’s talking about it.”

Well, everybody wasn’t talking about it. I have seen more evidence
of talk and the absence of evidence of injury, and I’m wondering where
is the justification for this?

As I look around, I see continuing growth in the disparity between
Black and White income. I see continued growing disparity in Black and
White levels of education. I see continuing disparity in Black and
White levels of test scores. I see it in the lack of opportunity. I see
it in unemployment. So I look at it and ask, “Okay, where is the
evidence of injury? What are we talking about — the one or two people
who may have a valid claim? Well, what about the thousands of people of
color who have a valid claim?”

And for anybody to sit there and say, “Oh no, this is only about
leveling the playing field.” Well, you know what? Where were these
people’s concerns about leveling the playing field in all these years
before? Nobody had a damn concern about leveling any playing field as
long as it was Blacks who were being hurt by it. They didn’t give a
shit about it. Now suddenly because one or two isolated White
individuals may suffer, suddenly they are wholly concerned with us
being a colorblind society?

Excuse me, but do they think we are ignorant? I mean, I just don’t get it…. But I guess I do, and that’s the sad part.

Journalism seems to have been completely co-opted into going along
with the process. What can be done, or should be done, to cover the
story?

This gets back to what I was talking to you about earlier …

The problem is that now there are so many different outlets and
they are competing so much for numbers that a story on the truth of
affirmative action won’t sell. You can’t get people to watch it. And
that’s rather sad.

That’s why I said I’m not sure that gaining parity in the
electronic media is necessarily a worthy objective. Better that you get
parity on The New York Times. Better that you get parity at Sports
Illustrated — a magazine that seems to be doing its damndest to
undermine African American males at every opportunity, and always has.
Better that you worry about getting parity at People Magazine. Better
that you worry about getting parity at Entertainment Weekly — where
week in and week out, they just write this stuff and they may have,
what, maybe one or two Black people on the staff. That, to me, is much
more of a concern because that’s where the agendas are being set.

But there’s growing interest among print journalists in trying to
get into broadcast journalism because that’s where the money is; that’s
where the exposure is. Are we kind of spiraling down?

I understand that. There is a dumbing-down taking place, but you
shouldn’t be surprised. I don’t single out media for that. There is a
dumbing-down in politics. There is a dumbing-down in movies. There is a
dumbing-down in literature. There is a dumbing-down at your newsstand
in magazines. So I don’t know that journalism should be singled out for
criticism in that.

There is a quick-fix mentality that is taking place in this country
that leads everybody to believe in the USA Today or People Magazine
mentality, which is that every story can fit into one paragraph. And if
the story is more than one paragraph, then you don’t need to worry
about it.

Do you think that today’s journalists, most of whom come out of
journalism school, are better prepared than their predecessors for the
challenges of the industry?

They are not nearly as well qualified as they were before.

Is this part of what’s wrong with what we’re seeing?

Do you mean, are we inbred?

Yes. What role can journalism schools play in turning some of this around?

Since I never came close to a journalism school, I’m not sure. I was
a Russian history major who had sort of a reputation for having a good
time rather than for learning anything. So I don’t know.

But you’ve worked with young producers. What would you like to say to them?

You know what makes a good producer? A good producer is somebody
who’s curious and anxious to tell a good story, and find the truth.

What makes a good producer is not somebody who’s concerned with
following all the rules they learned in j-school, and making sure that
all these bases are touched, and keeping one eye on the corporate
structure and where this story will take them.

A good producer is somebody who shows up and says, “Okay, how are we going to get this done?” Plain and simple.

You left the Today Show at a time in your career when a lot of
people asked, `What is he doing? He’s at the apex of his career.
Everybody loves him. It’s a great show.’ This was a big risk. Why did
you do it?

I did it because I frankly thought it was time to go, that there is
a time and a place for everything. I had done all I wanted to do.
Fifteen years had a nice ring to it. And it was just time to leave.

I’ve never been wholly preoccupied with what happens next. I fully
intended to be the crazy old man who lives on the hill. I really mean
that quite seriously. I stopped on January 2nd, and on January 3rd
started to grow my beard. I had no intentions of ever shaving — honest
to goodness.

A lot of people have the perception that success came easily to you and that’s why you are so cavalier about discarding fame.

To them, I would only say that I don’t think that anything in life
ever comes easy. I think people who say such things are unaware that I
flew a red-eye from California to New York every weekend for seven
years. [They] neglect to note that I went years and years without ever
taking a day off, that I worked every show that was possible…. For
fifteen years, I went to bed at midnight and got up at four. I don’t
know what’s easy about that.

Why, of all the charities in the world and the United States, have you chosen to be on the board of The College Fund/UNCF?

I’ve always been a believer in education as a means to an end….
[The College Fund] is the kind of charity to which you would like to
think even the most racist individual could not be opposed to because
it is not a handout in any fashion. It is simply giving someone an
opportunity to work as hard as they can to build as good a future for
themselves as possible. So I find it to be a charity that it is very
easy to get behind.

If you could speak to college presidents around the country about
the responsibility they have in helping to shape this nation as it
enters the next millenium, what would be your primary issue?

I’m not necessarily sure it’s presidents to whom I would address my
remarks. I’d probably address them more to educators, on a more
personal level…. I think that teachers have to keep in mind that
there are a lot of ways to learn.

We all went to school with people who got 4.0 grade point averages, yet were stuck for an answer when you said, “Hello.”

I know a lot of really successful people who were 2.0 students.

When I speak at colleges, I tell kids without any shame at all that
I was a 2.6 student. Plain and simple. I never made a dean’s list in my
life except for the list that said these are guys who got out of jail
last week.

So, I tend to look at education as something broadly defined, and I
wish educators would, too. They should be concerned with what a student
is learning and how a student is learning to cope, as opposed to
learning that answer A goes with question A and that answer B goes with
question B.

But again, I’m a bad one to ask. I’ve told [college] presidents,
when they’ve asked me to come speak, that they probably don’t want to
hear some of what I’ve got to say. And I always tell them that the
biggest lie they ever tell you is your grades will follow you forever.
That is a big lie. You know what? Tine day you graduate, unless you are
going to grad school, nobody will ever ask you what your grade point
average was. Nobody ever will.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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