NBC’s “Today” show is first in morning ratings, but there were grumblings aplenty Tuesday--including an unusually strong blast from NBC News President Michael Gartner--because of a confidential memo in which co-anchor Bryant Gumbel ripped the program’s on- and off-camera staff.
Only co-anchor Jane Pauley escaped unscathed. She wasn’t mentioned in Gumbel’s memo, which took hard whacks at weatherman Willard Scott, criticized film critic Gene Shalit’s critiques and interviews, and called consumer reporter David Horowitz “a walking cliche.”
Gumbel, who joined the program in 1982 and recently signed a new NBC pact that reportedly will pay him $7 million over the next three years, was said to be on vacation until Monday and was not available for comment. Correspondent Stephen Frazier is substitute-anchoring for him this week.
An NBC spokesman said Gumbel’s four-page memo was written last September to “Today” executive producer Marty Ryan in response to Ryan’s request for Gumbel’s analysis of the program, which was then in Seoul for the Summer Olympics.
Ryan declined Tuesday to discuss the memo itself but said his request for Gumbel’s thoughts about the show wasn’t unusual. He periodically seeks views on the program from other on-air staffers and producers, he said. “It’s not always done at the same time, but it is part of an on-going process,” Ryan said.
But Gartner, in a memo of his own to staffers, said the 5-month-old Gumbel memo was “ancient history” and was “apparently stolen out of Gumbel’s computer file and then given by an NBC employee” to a reporter for Newsday, which disclosed the memo’s contents Tuesday.
“That, quite simply, is theft,” Gartner said. “It won’t be tolerated. Anyone who steals will be fired.”
Gumbel wrote that “Today” needed more background reports on politics and a segment on videocassettes, and fired several shots at the flamboyant, high-spirited Scott.
The weatherman, Gumbel wrote, “holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste.”
He said that Scott should be bumped from the show’s first half hour, which usually has more hard news content than the rest of the program. The weatherman will be angered, Gumbel wrote, but “so what. . . . He can’t leave this job and couldn’t get a better one.”
Scott was not available for comment Tuesday. His office said he was busy at a taping.
Horowitz said Tuesday, “The rest of the memo was very positive about my work.” He said Gumbel has kidded him to his face “about being ‘the cliche of consumerism,’ ” but he takes that as a compliment.
The Gumbel memo was written in response to producer Ryan’s request for “a frank exchange of opinion,” NBC spokesman Curt Block said. “It was an internal memo not meant for publication. It hasn’t resulted in any changes on the show.”
Gartner, in his memo, noted that “this is a business of creative people, and if we can’t be open and honest, if we can’t exchange views without having memos stolen and half-stories leaked and cheap shots taken anonymously, then we all have a big problem.
“I hope the handful of you who are stirring this pot, a cowardly and disloyal handful, will think about the long-term damage you’re causing.”
Gartner told staffers that he had spoken with Gumbel and others on the show Tuesday and reaffirmed his own pleasure in its success and his belief in candid discussions “to make us even better.”
A number of “Today” staff members were upset by Gumbel’s comments, a source close to the situation said, adding, “I think the reaction is predictable.”
But film critic Shalit, who has been on “Today” longer than its other on-air personnel, said the memo didn’t bother him, even though it called his reviews “often late” and said his interviews with film stars “aren’t very good.”
Shalit said Gumbel’s memo is old, that “he wrote it at an entirely different time in his life and of the show’s life, and it’s old news and meaningless, as far as I’m concerned.”
He shrugged off Gumbel’s criticism of him.
“Aw, they’re not big whacks. . . . Listen, I’ve been interviewing people on the show for 17 years. I must be doing something right.”