BLUNT BUT NEVER BLAND Gumbel survives criticism to celebrate his 10th year on 'Today'


New York -- Here is the conventional wisdom about NBC "Today" show anchor Bryant Gumbel: He's pompous, he's humorless, he thinks too much of himself and, oh yeah, he doesn't treat his female co-anchors with enough respect.

But, as the 43-year-old newsman pointed out the other day in an interview in his Manhattan office, "I've been here 10 years and we've been No. 1 for . . . half of those years, so I can't be that much of a deadbeat."

Ten years ago today, Mr. Gumbel became anchor on "Today," the show that started network morning television 40 years ago Jan. 14.

Mr. Gumbel was succeeding Tom Brokaw (who went on to

become "NBC Nightly News" anchor). But Mr. Gumbel was a sports guy, known for his coverage of football, baseball and basketball and for a prime-time trifle called "Games People Play."

He was considered a lightweight.

In addition, as would be hugely evident later, some people were inclined to be protective of co-anchor Jane Pauley, who had been passed up for the top anchor spot (and who returns to the show today to mark Mr. Gumbel's 10 years).

The worst of the Gumbel criticism, as just about anyone who follows television knows, came in March 1989 after an internal memo he wrote became public. The memo was highly critical of several "Today" show personnel and, in particular, weatherman Willard Scott, who Mr. Gumbel said was holding the show hostage to bad taste.

Mr. Scott says he still has bad feelings about the memo. In the Jan. 11 issue of TV Guide, he said, "It mattered. It hurt. It was a terrible thing, There's always going to be a scar." He went on to say that his souring relationship with Mr. Gumbel was one of the reasons he shifted his headquarters to Washington, leaving Mr. Gumbel in New York.

But here's the way Mr. Gumbel looks at it: "I'm basically a guy who showed up for work every day for 10 years and tried to act as professionally as possible under good and adverse circumstances -- plain and simple."

Many people, he says, are "inclined to see what they want to see." And in many cases, he says in response to a question about race, what they see is a black man.

"I think what it is, is that perceptions of black people who operate with a degree of confidence differ from perceptions of whites who operate with the same degree of confidence -- that whereas one is seen as professional and confident and prepared, the other is seen as cocky and arrogant and uppity.

"And I think that's true. I think that unless I giggle and smile, to a certain segment of the population I'm intimidating. And unless I display some ignorance, to a certain segment of the population I'm arrogant, and I guess I can't help that. I don't believe most of America is racist, but I do believe that race colors a great deal of the opinions about me. It has to."

Still, Mr. Gumbel has survived, while several network news presidents, executive producers of "Today" and co-anchors have not. And while the show is currently No. 2, behind ABC's "Good Morning America" -- having fallen following the endlessly publicized Jane Pauley-Deborah Norville fiasco of 1989 -- NBC signed Mr. Gumbel up just weeks ago for another three-year, multimillion-dollar contract (Willard Scott also has renewed).

And if there are any remaining doubts about Mr. Gumbel's value to the show, just talk to the new executive producer of "Today," 26-year-old Jeffrey Zucker.

"Nobody taught me more about live television than Bryant," says Mr. Zucker. "I learned everything I know about live television from Bryant."

Had Mr. Gumbel left the show, "I would have been scared," Mr. Zucker says.

Not that Mr. Zucker isn't aware of, sensitive to and a bit wary of the anchor's image, both real and imagined.

"Bryant's a very honest guy," says Mr. Zucker. "And Bryant's a very opinionated guy. And he lets his personality come through, and that's a part of what makes him great. He'll tell it to you like it is, and sometimes, it comes off in a way that he in no way would intend it to. But that's part of why this show has succeeded as well because it's not bland. Bryant is a personality."

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