Gumbel, `Early Show' join morning carnival

Review: CBS' new morning news show, though authoritative, lags its rivals in entertainment savvy.

November 02, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A big news story to cover, no major goof-ups and an interview with the president of the United States. You might think that would make for a pretty good debut of a network morning news show.

But there is one other element that will probably overshadow all others in the minds of many: While CBS' new morning broadcast, "The Early Show," featured four jugglers in its outdoor-on-the-plaza segments, NBC's top-rated "Today" had Mariah Carey in concert on a stage in Rockefeller Plaza. The disparity between Carey with a plaza full of adoring fans and a quartet of jugglers from the Moscow Circus suggests how far CBS has to go to be competitive in the news show-as-carnival-midway that network morning television has become.

Overall, it was not a bad beginning for Bryant Gumbel, Jane Clayson and "The Early Show" crew. In fact, thanks in large part to Gumbel's cool professional demeanor, the show opened with considerable authority.

After a report on the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 from national correspondent Jon Frankel at the start of the show, Gumbel, whose forte is interviewing, talked to Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board about the investigation. While the conversation yielded nothing new, Gumbel asked the right kinds of questions and tried to get some sort of timetable on the investigation into the crash.

The hour also included an Oval Office interview with Bill Clinton in which Gumbel again asked the right kinds of questions. For example, when Clinton said how "proud" he is of the way his vice president, Al Gore, and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, are campaigning for the White House and the Senate, respectively, Gumbel asked how Clinton feels about polls saying he would be a "liability" to them on the hustings.

Gumbel did cut Clinton a break by not asking a follow-up when the president responded by saying he thinks people tell pollsters that because they "don't want anyone telling them how to vote."

That's not why Clinton's considered a liability, according to the polls. It's because of his personal behavior in office.

But Gumbel can be forgiven for letting it slide. And, despite what it says about TV journalists as celebrities, Gumbel can probably even be forgiven for closing the interview by inviting the president to golf with him at his country club, which he informed Clinton is the course nearest the Clintons' new home-to-be in New York.

What Gumbel should not be forgiven for, though, is the interview with Donald Trump that led off the second hour. "The Early Show" is housed in the Trump Plaza near Central Park. To get the kind of great-looking, big-city studio space that ABC's "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today" have, CBS News needed Trump as landlord.

OK, fine, show me the Trump sign and maybe say a few nice things about your landlord as real estate developer, I can live with that in this era of declining news standards. But when Gumbel tosses Trump softballs about his switch to the Reform Party and his possible presidential candidacy, you are in a very different neighborhood of journalism ethics.

Overall, "The Early Show" seemed less news-oriented than ABC's "GMA," which had Charles Gibson in the field covering the jet crash and has yet to get caught up in the hype and silliness of the tabloid-generated "morning wars" talk. In terms of pop culture and viewer appeal, "The Early Show" was not even in the same stratosphere as NBC's "Today," which in addition to Carey's music offered a Katie Couric interview with author Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, about life after his debilitating accident.

WJZ (Channel 13), the CBS-owned station in Baltimore, carries only the second hour of "The Early Show" each day. Judging from yesterday's performance, I would have to say the station is wise in sticking with its own show anchored by Don Scott and Marty Bass from 7 to 8.

Study after study says above all else viewers want local news, and WJZ was able to localize the EgyptAir story yesterday with names and faces of local residents and area exchange students killed in the crash. "There are a lot of local angles to the crash," Scott told viewers.

"That's why we're on. It's called local programming," Bass said.

`The Early Show'

When: Mornings 8 to 9.

Where: WJZ (Channel 13).

Note: The full broadcast from 7 to 9 can be seen on WUSA (Channel 9) in Washington.

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