Inside ''Today'': The Battle for the Morning
Judy Kessler’s career took off in 1974, when a friend from Stanford, Danny Kaye’s daughter, talked Danny into letting Kessler accompany him on a UNICEF tour aboard his Learjet. The comic’s behavior was sexist and crude, and Kessler reported this in People. Kaye phoned her and called her ”a c—.”
By a striking coincidence, ”the c—” is how Today show host Bryant Gumbel allegedly referred to his colleague Jane Pauley. Kessler worked as Today‘s talent booker from 1980-84; she got the job by making nice to Tony Orlando, whose PR man gave her an interview with recluse Priscilla Presley, thus impressing a Today honcho. Kessler’s tell-all book, Inside Today: The Battle for the Morning, is most interesting as an account of the rising power of celebs over the news media, but what you want to hear is the stuff on Gumbel and Pauley.
According to Kessler, Gumbel checked female coworkers’ backs for bra straps, assessed their bust sizes at meetings, waved dead mice in their faces, disparaged the prowess of those he claimed to have bedded, and hid behind doors on his hands and knees, leaping out to bark at women in an effort to scare them.
He’s even scarier standing upright. When somebody booked a guest Gumbel had vetoed, Kessler says Gumbel demanded of the supervising producer, ”How dare you? Do you think you are running this show?” After Deborah Norville developed toxemia, a dangerous complication of pregnancy, and her doctor told her to lie down between interviews, Gumbel refused to let her use his office couch next to the studio.
To hear Kessler tell it, Gumbel’s boorishness was symptomatic of the testosterone poisoning that helped Today fall so far out of touch with its female viewership. Mistakes like Pauley’s abrupt ouster cost NBC an estimated $40 milion. The men in power were vicious even by Manhattan standards, literally playing hardball in the studio and conking passing female staffers on the head. Kessler reports that her boss, former Today producer Steve Friedman, pitched his shoe through a TV monitor in an irate moment and destroyed three clocks in one day with his lucky baseball. He is said to have forced one staffer to cancel a European trip in order to play baseball for Today against the Good Morning America team — and later made her play when she was three months pregnant and troubled by morning sickness.
Sports is, of course, just a metaphor for war. Kessler is no pacifist herself: She bad-mouths Pauley, Norville, and Mariette Hartley, among others. She’s a desultory storyteller, but for a few years she was there in the war room watching all hell break loose five times a week. Her report on America’s dysfunctional morning-TV family is more revealing than Murphy Brown, and sometimes funnier. B