Turning the Tables on the Emmy-Winning Interviewer
Edward Lansing Gordon, III was born in Detroit in 1960. Both his parents, Ed and Jimmie, were schoolteachers, although his father is best remembered for winning a gold medal in the long jump at the 1932 Olympics. Ed credits them both with instilling in him his dedication to the tireless work ethic which served him well while earning his B.A. in communications and political science at Western Michigan University and subsequently in his Emmy-winning career as a television journalist.
His name became synonymous with celebrity interviews while with the Black Entertainment Television Network where he hosted “Conversationc with Ed Gordon” along with anchoring BET News and BET Tonight. In that capacity, he is perhaps most famous for landing the first post-acquittal one-on-one with O.J. Simpson. Ed’s impressive resume also includes intimate tete-a-tetes with President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Reverend Al Sharpton, Halle Berry, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jamie Foxx, Minister Louis Farrakhan, South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela, R. Kelly and Senator Trent Lott, just to name a few.
Since BET, Ed has enjoyed stints at CBS as a correspondent on 60 Minutes and at NBC as a commentator on Dateline and The Today Show. He is currently hosting a couple of nationally-syndicated programs: Our World with Black Enterprise and NPR’s News and Notes with Ed Gordon.
Besides collecting his fair share of professional accolades such as an NAACP Image Award and the National Association of Black Journalist’s Journalist of the Year Award, Ed has also been named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World by People Magazine.
Though divorced, he remains very much a part of the life of his 14 year-old daughter, Taylor. Inspired by the positive response to an article he wrote for Essence Magazine about his commitment to Taylor, Ed recently launched his latest project: Daddy’s Promise (http://www.daddyspromise.com/), an initiative celebrating the bond between African-American men and their daughters.
Sentinel: What inspired you to write the article for Essence?
EG: Just the relationship that I have with Taylor. I had always wanted kids and thought I’d have a boy. But I had this little girl and she’s just been such a joy to me. I really only wanted to say that out loud. And after it was published, the response was overwhelming. I always knew that Essence was the Bible for black women, but I never understood until then just how far-reaching it was. After that response, I felt that I needed to do more, and we came up with Daddy’s Promise, a national initiative. Ironically, we knew we were going to launch it around Father’s Day, but Barack Obama’s recently speaking about the need for men to be fathers makes it even more poignant.
Sentinel: Do you think part of your originally wanting to have a son might have had to do with you’re being Ed Gordon, III and the son of an Olympic gold medalist?
EG: Probably. My brother suggested that that was just my little macho thing, wanting to relive my childhood and high school years by watching a son play basketball and football and date pretty girls. I suspect a lot of men feel like that. But my brother also told me, “You’re about to receive a gift in a woman who will love you like no other. Not like your mother, not like your wife or any girl friend you’ve ever had. This person will love you unconditionally, in a way which you won’t be able to fathom until you experience it.” He was so right. But I also see the importance of men being in their daughters’ lives.
Sentinel: What do you hope the program will accomplish?
EG: We know that sisters are doing such a fine job going to college and entering the corporate world, yet often when you talk to them, many still have a void from not having a father in their lives. And they might make certain decisions which, upon reflection, they might wish they hadn’t made. But they didn’t have a road map. You can often tell a woman who didn’t have a father in her life.
Sentinel: How can fathers get involved with your program?
EG: Go to the website, http://www.daddyspromise.com/, download the pledge, hand it to your daughter, tell her you love her, and send us a picture of the two of you to show the world that you are a good father. We’re trying to get people to stand up and say, “Hey, I’m a good one, and join me.” The first wave is very symbolic.
Sentinel: Are you at all worried about your message being misconstrued the way some people unfairly labeled Bill Cosby elitist and out of touch after his call for black self-responsibility?
EG: I don’t see that happening because this movement is not doing any finger-pointing. I’m saying that, in general, there are a lot of ills in our society and in our community that we have to fix, period. And we need to be about fixing them. This is a celebration of the brothers who are doing the right thing. And those who aren’t know who they are. We’re trying to make this an initiative where brothers who aren’t doing the right thing will want to come on board and turn things around. Sentinel: Did you have any problems with Obama’s Father’s Day speech in which he sharply criticized absentee African-American fathers?
EG: No. Look, I think that as a community we have to be willing to step up and examine our ills without being concerned that we might be seen as blaming the victim or telling tales out of school, so to speak. We have problems, as does the rest of the world. We’ve faced a disproportionate share for a myriad of reasons. It’s not just because we’re trifling, there are a number of things that impact us. The point is we can’t continue to let those reasons, which run the gamut from racism to being trifling and everything in between, stop us. The world is moving at a very fast pace now, and we have to make sure that we stay in this race.
Sentinel: Do you think it was fair for Obama to talk about the ills of the ghetto, when he was raised by his white mother and white grandparents in the Midwest, in Hawaii and overseas?
EG: Here’s my issue with that. I think it’s unfair for people to suggest, as you just did, that he didn’t grow up with a black experience. His was a black experience, just a different one. We have to understand that the black experience includes being a mulatto. Nobody complains about Halle Berry who was raised by her mom. And Halle’s been very up front about how she sees herself and who she is.
The reality is that black America comes in all shapes, colors, hair textures… the whole nine yards. And we have to start embracing it all, because that’s who we are. Barack Obama was first criticized for, quote, not being black enough and for not being able to understand the black experience. Now, when he deals with some real black issues, people are still knocking him.
Sentinel: Do you feel at all funny about the popular notion that because Obama won the nomination America is now a post-racial society?
EG: I think it’s important to note that he has never suggested that. Often, the pundits are saying that. But I think we have to be mindful that as wonderful as this Obama wave is we still have to be careful. We are not beyond racism. This could very well be an anomaly, much as after Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for Gone with the Wind, it took another three decades for another black person to win an Academy Award. So, I think we have to be mindful of what can occur. That being said, I do believe that those of us who are of a certain age have to allow for the baggage to drop. I do think that the younger generation is less burdened by the weight of race. But let’s not assume that the vestiges of racism are gone just because Mr. Obama has the Democratic nomination. It certainly is a milestone that should be saluted. And it speaks to how far this country has come in the last forty years, but it doesn’t eradicate the issues or the problems which still face us in a country so consumed with race prejudice and quite frankly the question of gender as well. We still have a ways to go, so we should celebrate the accomplishment while being mindful that it is not by any means complete.
Sentinel: Have you interviewed Obama?
EG: I’ve interviewed him a number of times. The last time was about a week or two before he was declared. But we’re going back and forth with his folks right now about sitting down again with him in the immediate future.
Sentinel: What did you think about the flap between him and Tavis Smiley and Tavis’ resigning from The Tom Joyner Show?
EG: I think black America has to realize that this race is bigger than one thing. That’s how I see it. There are certain things this candidate is going to do and rules he has to follow. But it doesn’t mean that he isn’t with us. Barack Obama has been masterful in being middle ground enough for white America to embrace him but black enough for black America to say, “That’s our guy.”
Sentinel: Are you familiar with black conservative Shelby Steele’s new book explains why Obama won’t win the Presidency because of his having to satisfy the competing concerns of black and white constituencies? I had a pretty interesting interview with him about it.
EG: Yeah, I interviewed him as well.
Sentinel: Who are you supporting for President?
EG: Well, as journalists, as you know, because I’m on all of these shows, I do not publicly suggest who I support. But, eh, you know.
Sentinel: Since you’re originally from Detroit, how do you feel about your hometown’s embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick? Do you think he should step down?
EG: I think he has certainly placed himself in a position that does not bode well for trying to hold the mayoral seat because there are so many issues likely to sidetrack him. I will be disappointed because Kwame is smart, charismatic and everything you would want in a leader. I’m sorry that some of the personal has involved itself in the political. And it has made things more difficult for a city that’s already reeling. In terms of resigning, he says that he doesn’t believe he should, so at this point you just let the process play itself out.
Sentinel: What was it like to be named one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” by People Magazine?
EG: Man, they had probably finished picking 49 and were tired, and I just happened to be passing by. Look, Kam, it’s flattering, and I appreciate it, but you can’t take that stuff seriously. Just when you start buying into it, something slaps you back down to Earth.
Sentinel: When you interviewed O.J. Simpson, you asked him right off the bat whether he did it. But in retrospect were there any other questions you wished you’d asked him?
EG: No, I have learned over the years that as long as you’re well prepared, you do the best you can do. It’s funny because sometimes people will say you didn’t ask this or that, when you did ask those questions but the interviewee didn’t answer it in the way the viewer wanted. So, I’ve learned not to beat myself up after these interviews. If I can say I went in prepared, then I know I’ve done my best.
Sentinel: That makes me think of the passing of Tim Russert who was among the very best at preparation.
EG: Tim was one of those anomalies in the business who started off at the other end, as an executive, and found his way in front of the camera. And you can see just by the outpouring of sympathy and well-deserved tributes that he’s receiving that he touched America deeply.
Sentinel: How well did you know him?
EG: During my years at NBC, I was stationed in New York while he was in D.C., so I didn’t get to see him a lot, but we would do a lot of cross-talks on the shows. And he, as everyone has mentioned, always had very nice and supportive things to say to you. Professionally, you could see that he had passion for what he did. That’s key. I don’t know that you could find anything that better suits someone for a career than passion. So, it’s a big loss.
Sentinel: Which of your interviews did you find the most interesting?
EG: Honestly, without sounding too corny, I find almost every interview I do interesting, because everyone has a story. So, if you listen, you’ll see that there is a unique dynamic when dealing with each person. But in terms of the interview which was most special to me, while most people think it must be either O.J. Simpson or R. Kelly, it actually was the first time I had an opportunity to sit down with Nelson Mandela. I am underwhelmed by most interviewees, but I was floored by this man. Floored! I’m really meat and potatoes. I ain’t that deep. But you could feel this man’s presence when he walked into the room before he even uttered a word. I’m probably most proud of that interview because he’s an extraordinary person and because it was conducted in his home in South Africa.
Sentinel: What you think of BET programming and Bob Johnson’s new film studio, Our Stories Films?
EG: I can’t really comment about Our Stories Films, because I haven’t seen their first movie, Who’s Your Caddy. As for the direction of BET, look, BET is what it is. I had concerns when I was there, and often fought about the programming. But I also understood that it wasn’t my ball, and that the person that controls the ball controls the game. So, I tried to represent the news department as best I could. That being said, my disappointment is more with the fact that until TV-One came about, black people only had one television network, because competition spurs better programming and better thought. So, my bigger disappointment was with the industry itself and with the failure of black entrepreneurs to give BET competition when it was more feasible, economically, to get in the game.
Sentinel: How do you feel about your longevity in this business?
EG: I’ve been very blessed and feel very fortunate to be able to work in a number of areas and to make some noise with the interviews and programs I’ve done through the years, and to be able to work continuously, which is not easy in our industry. The fact that I’m hanging on and have some gray hair now, is okay.
Sentinel: How do you want to be remembered?
EG: As Taylor’s daddy, and a good one.
Sentinel: How did it feel to be on the other side of an interview?
EG: Some interviewers-turned-interviewees don’t like not being in control, but I wasn’t really bothered by it.
To check out Ed’s website, visit: http://www.daddyspromise.com/
To hear Gil Scott-Heron’s classic tribute to his daughter “Your Daddy Loves You” visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sD9Ku5qEP