A couple of days after his TV interview with Sen. Trent Lott, newsman Ed Gordon was still receiving congratulations, including praise from a few people -- CBS's Ed Bradley, NBC's Tim Russert, ABC's Charlie Gibson, CNN's Paula Zahn -- who know something about the art of the interview.
At the same time, Gordon was asking himself a question: What now?
The Lott interview on Black Entertainment Television on Monday made the 42-year-old Gordon the man of the moment. But he's also the man without a program. Ten days before Gordon got Lott, BET said it was effectively canceling Gordon. His late-night daily interview show, "BET Tonight With Ed Gordon," will be scrapped in favor of an entertainment program. Gordon's still under contract with BET until July, but now he's in limbo.
Gordon professes no anger or bitterness about getting BET's backhand after years of being just about everything on camera -- reporter, interviewer, host. He's hopeful, in fact, that the attention the interview received will persuade the Washington-based network to restore his show and two other public-affairs programs that are about to be dumped. A network official earlier this week blamed the shows' low ratings and a lack of advertiser support for the changes.
"I hope BET takes a page out of ABC's book when there were whispers that 'Nightline' was going to be replaced" by David Letterman, Gordon says. "ABC eventually came to see it as a thriving and viable program, and saw they'd made a mistake."
He adds, "BET has always said that news and public affairs are important to us, but they're clearly not as important as they used to be."
Gordon was polite but insistent in his questioning of Lott, who'd been under fire for racial insensitivity after praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist run for president in 1948. The Mississippi Republican struggled under Gordon's firm hand as the interview wore on. At one point, Lott blurted out, despite his Senate voting record to the contrary, that he advocates affirmative action "across the board."
Rather than saving Lott's job as incoming Senate majority leader, the interview was generally viewed as a debacle for Lott, who said yesterday that he will step down as Senate GOP leader.
Instead, the big winner may have been Gordon. "He was Lott's worst nightmare, offering a primer for other TV interviewers," wrote Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg. ". . . Without being a bully, he held Lott's tongue to the fire, pressing him on 'your past' and not allowing the senator to dodge, finesse or answer questions that weren't asked."
Russert, the host of NBC's "Meet the Press," said in an interview: "He did a very good job. He was thorough and well prepared. He was civil and persistent -- the key was persistence."
Gordon is grateful for the praise but sidesteps the question of whether the interview was the beginning of the end for Lott. "I just feel like I had a job to do, and that was to interview him," he says. "I don't know how much, if any, effect it had on him stepping down. People say, 'Was that the death knell? Did that slit his throat?' I don't think about it in those terms."
Lott was among several timely and important "gets" for Gordon during the course of his career. He also landed the first TV interview with O.J. Simpson in 1996, a few months after Simpson was acquitted of the double murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Earlier this year, he got the singer R. Kelly to address accusations of illicit sexual behavior. Gordon estimates that he's interviewed more than a thousand people on camera, ranging from important historic figures like Nelson Mandela and Presidents Clinton and Bush (the elder) to entertainers like Halle Berry, Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.
The son of teachers, Gordon chose TV over law school after a friend got him an unpaid internship at the PBS affiliate in Detroit, his home town. He was eventually hired by the station, hosted "Detroit Black Journal" and freelanced for BET as its Detroit correspondent before joining the network full time in 1988.
Although he's been BET's rising star for what seems like forever, Gordon was briefly a rising star at NBC and its sister cable-news network, MSNBC. After he was hired away from BET by NBC in 1996 to help with MSNBC's launch, he was sometimes touted as a potential replacement for Bryant Gumbel on the "Today" show.
Gordon was installed as one of five rotating hosts (along with Tom Brokaw and Bob Costas) on an MSNBC show called "Internight." He also did some reporting for "Today" and "Dateline," including getting an exclusive interview with Autumn Jackson, a young woman who made headlines when she claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Bill Cosby (she was later found guilty of attempted extortion). But Gordon never achieved stardom at NBC, and decided after three years to head back to BET in 1999.
Asked why he left a 24-hour news network to return to one with an indifferent attitude toward news, Gordon stumbles a bit. "Honestly, I struggle with this question," he says. "I guess it was timing. . . . I don't want to paint it as unhappy. Did it pan out as either party hoped? 'No' would be a fair answer."
Though Gordon's interviewing skills aren't in doubt, it's not immediately apparent how much range he has, says one news producer, who asked not to be identified. "What if another 9/11 happens?" he asks. "Is this the guy you want sitting in the anchor chair for four or five hours? Can he think on his feet on election night? Peter Jennings can talk for a week on any subject you throw at him. That ability is very underrated, but when you don't have it, viewers notice right away."
But Tom Jacobs, a veteran news producer, says Gordon will probably wind up as the anchorman of a local TV station, not a network. Gordon's biggest barrier, he says, isn't talent but color.
"Let's face it, black males are not in high demand on network news," says Jacobs, who worked with Gordon briefly at BET and is now developing minority-oriented public-affairs programming. "It's pretty sad, really. You still have, predominantly, middle-aged white males making the decisions. And they tend to hire people like themselves."
Gordon would rather avoid the subject, but network news hasn't been the most hospitable place for African American men. Even as the national TV news landscape has expanded, the number of high-profile black faces hasn't kept pace. There's Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes" and anchors Lester Holt on MSNBC and Leon Harris on CNN, but the list isn't very deep.
Could Gordon make it back?
"The reality is, I'm not really sure what direction I'm going to go in," he says, with the sort of coyness that normally invites a tough Gordonesque follow-up. ". . . The reason I loved 'BET Tonight' was because I love the idea of variety. One night we'd have Denzel Washington on, the next night we'd be talking about affirmative action. The next night it would be Ja Rule. That, to me, is heaven."
Ken Lindner, Gordon's agent, says he's gotten several inquiries about Gordon since the Lott interview, including expressions of interest from two networks he won't identify.
"We're open to everything," says Lindner, who represents dozens of national and local news personalities. "Sometimes, there's a defining moment in a newsperson's career. This was one of them."