The Stranger in your House
If this story was about Cecily Tynan, weather-hottie extraordinaire, we'd discuss the marathon she runs every morning before checking her Doppler, and probably try to sneak in some analysis of her belly ring while we're at it. A sit-down with Larry Kane would lead him to mention his books, repeatedly, and drop a couple references to his hang time with the Beatles. And John Bolaris … well, was there anyone he was shagging, from Center City to Avalon, that we didn't know about? But this is a story about Jim Gardner, and as he sits in a nondescript conference room deep below the Action News newsroom, Gardner's telling a titillating tale of his own, about his first TV job in Buffalo and … film editing.
“It wasn't video in those days, it was film, and you'd have strips of film, and you'd be doing this and doing this.” Gardner unrolls an imaginary ribbon, holds it up to the light, and squints to examine it. “You had a film cutter, and in those days, there was something called lip-flap. If you didn't learn how to compensate for lip-flap, you'd have jump cuts, and there would be a delay in terms of the sound. So I learned all the tricks to eliminate lip-flap. I loved it.”
Gardner doesn't show much emotion on television, but during this two-hour conversation, he is more animated while describing lip-flap than just about anything else. Which makes perfect sense. He never talks about anything interesting, or anything at all. Not with the media, and not much more with the people he works with at wpvi. Tynan's a relative newbie in this business, and Bolaris and Kane are gone, but Gardner's still here. He's been Philadelphia's Walter Cronkite for so long, it's easy to overlook what he's accomplished: This is his 30th year in TV news, and for each of the 27 he's spent in this town, he's been in the same comfortable seat — at the top of the pile, watching everyone else play catch-up in the ratings while he cashes in a paycheck now estimated at near $2.5 million. It's a feat no one in any major market has ever duplicated.
This didn't happen by accident. It helps that he's spent his career in Philadelphia, so grounded in its fierce parochialism and prone to stomachaches when change comes knocking. It helped that he arrived at a time when viewers were turned on by a flashier, faster form of newscasting called Action News. Back then, 85 percent of Americans got their news from the television, and Gardner's delivery — smooth without sounding slick, earnest without the arrogance — was like mother's milk, natural and comforting. In other cities, he'd still be a great anchor. Here, he's perfect.
Of course, he's not perfect in real life, but you don't see his flaws on the nightly news. While he's one of the most well-known Philadelphians, we don't really know him at all. And when your public character is a blank canvas, like Gardner's, you are whatever the viewer sees. If he reminds you of your father, that's who he is. Maybe he's like your old college lover — that's fine, too. Or your brother. He's all those things, because he's none of them.
Jim Gardner's success hinges on maintaining the mystery, because there's no telling what you'd think of him if you knew who he really is. Only occasionally is there a glimpse of the man behind the anchor's facade — the guy who breaks wind just to make his weatherman crack up on camera, the perfectionist who makes life in the newsroom unbearable, the ladies' man turned proud father, the Ivy League snob, the surgeon's son, and the man once known as Jim Goldman.
You give him a nightly invitation into your home, but it's a one-way street. He wants you to know about robberies, stabbings, three-car pileups, four-alarm fires, approaching storms, and how the home teams played. The only thing he doesn't want you to know about is Jim Gardner. And by keeping himself a secret, he's become the most successful local TV news anchor in the country.
In person, Gardner, 55, is shorter than you would expect, even if, like most people, you've never seen him below the shoulders. His hair and trademark mustache are as white as his dress shirt, and in a crimson tie and thin, delicate frames, he looks quite stylish as he leans back in his chair, propping his well-worn soles on a second chair. That's about as relaxed as he gets. Gardner is loath to grant interviews — he initially turned this one down, saying he does the news, but doesn't want to be the news. His decision to talk, he says, sprang simply from fear that his silence might be misinterpreted. “It was my sense that over a period of time, my not talking might sound as if I were being arrogant,” Gardner says matter-of-factly. “I don't like to think of myself as being arrogant.”
Actually, Gardner doesn't like to think of himself as being thought of at all. But to those whose experience with him isn't limited to one side of a 27-inch Panasonic, there's a real person separate and apart from the icon beamed into your home every night. To them, the word that best describes him is demanding. In just about every TV newsroom across the country, there is, literally, a playbook that defines the station's voice, goals and journalistic identity. Not at wpvi. It doesn't need one with Gardner at the helm. More than any other anchor in town, he controls what you see at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. every night.
Each day, Gardner's gray Audi pulls into the 'pvi parking lot off City Line Avenue at 2 p.m., four hours before his early shift, which leaves plenty of time for him to debrief with reporters, producers and the news director about the afternoon show. It doesn't leave those people much time to react to his feedback, which usually concerns his two sticking points: writing, and “stacking” the show, which means choosing stories to air and the order in which they'll run. Following the six o'clock news, Gardner drives home to Villanova for dinner with his wife, Amy, and their two young children. He then returns by 8:15 to prep for the marquee 11 p.m. show, writing his own scripts and again making sure everything is letter-perfect. If he thinks a script sucks, he'll say so, and it will be rewritten. If he sees a hole in a story, the reporter will be back on the phone.
No one questions his talents — a gifted news writer, an impeccable on-air performer with dead-on journalistic instincts — but the overwhelming consensus of the 40 people interviewed for this story is that at best, he can be difficult to work with, and at worst, he makes life at Action News miserable. “Everyone had to pass through a trial of fire,” says a former 'pvi producer. “Careers could be damaged by him. Once he shuts you down, it's hard to come back.”
wpvi's current commercials paint a different scene within the newsroom — Gardner, speaking in gentle tones with a soft smile, describes the Action News team as “a good family.” Asked about this, Cecily Tynan adds an asterisk: “It is like a family,” she says. “Not completely functional all the time, but whose families are? He is a perfectionist, so when things go wrong, he'll let you know. He's been known to throw a tantrum, and when he's in a bad mood, you stay out of his way.”
His misbehavior wasn't the physical kind — no thrown chairs or newsroom fistfights. Instead, his relentless dissatisfaction has resulted in public beratings of co-workers and verbal blowups. That's not uncommon in a high-pressure workplace, but the incidents, when added up over the years, have earned him a reputation as an “asshole,” as one friend puts it.
Viewers don't get a live shot of what happens behind the scenes, and while that's probably for the best, it's also one reason Gardner goes volcanic when things go wrong. “The public doesn't think there are 100 people behind him,” says Bob Kravitz, a retired 33-year veteran photographer for the station. “They say, ‘It's Gardner.' So he has a right to get his ass in a huff sometimes.” Compounding his frustrations with the people around him is the inherent conflict between the man's intellectual hunger and the relative mindlessness of his job. “Forget anchors,” says former wpvi general manager Dave Davis. “He's one of the smartest people I know.” Yet for all Gardner's Mensa potential, at the end of the day, he's reading the news, in a medium that's often maligned. “Local TV news is the shame of American journalism,” says Larry Gross, a former Penn professor and head of the Annenberg School of Communications at usc. “The format doesn't allow Gardner to put his [knowledge] to use.”
The anchor admits he was concerned years ago with whether he could sate his intellectual hunger as a TV newsman, but says he found ways to satisfy himself and better serve his audience. Gardner writes practically half the newscast, and his fluid but smart style earns praise from those around him. “The only other anchor I've worked with like that is Peter Jennings,” says Ned Warwick, Gardner's news director from 1986 to 1990. “I've met too many who are just performers — he's an excellent performer and a serious journalist.” Gardner also dirties up his hands with some good old-fashioned research. Before covering Pope John Paul ii's 1979 mass on Logan Circle, he read about the Catholic Church for three days straight, and to prep for the opening of the Constitution Center last year, he plowed through five books on the historic document.
But Gardner was never the quiet academic in the newsroom, and he admits that from his first days in Philly in the '70s, he's mistreated people in his quest for the perfect newscast. “Coming to a new place was difficult,” he says. “I'm not the gregarious type. New environments, significant changes, are challenges for me. wpvi was Mount Olympus. At 28, being asked to do what I was asked to do — it was a challenge.”
Considering that 'pvi itself has long been change-averse — its theme song is 33 years old, and it only recently abandoned illustrating the weather with magnets — Gardner would seem to be a perfect fit. But playing the role of Zeus was too much at times, and while his work never suffered, his relationships with those around him did. He says it was youth and inexperience that led him to abuse his colleagues. Then he pauses for a moment. “You know what? There's never any justification for treating people like that. There were times when I showed insufficient respect for, and insensitivity to, other people's feelings and dignity. Not because I wanted to, but because I was incapable of doing anything else. I guess I was sufficiently insecure that if something went wrong, I didn't respond to it well. There's a subtle line between being demanding and behaving badly.”
Gardner's controlling need to make things perfect isn't limited to his mistreatment of co-workers. In 1993, Inquirer television writer Gail Shister rattled him with a simple question about his hair. “All of a sudden, he showed up on-air with hair two or three shades darker,” she recalls. “Everyone was asking me, ‘When are you going to write about Jim Gardner's hair?' So I called him, and he was adamant about how he had a new colorist and she messed up, and why was I even interested. I just thought if he treated it with the slightest sense of humor, he'd have diffused the situation in a nanosecond. So I wrote the column, and of course he came off sounding like a jerk.”
The irony is that Gardner does have a sense of humor, but rarely shows it. When he worked alongside his friend and weather forecaster, the late Jim O'Brien, the ritual of taping news clips for the next day became a competition in which each sought to make the other guy blow his lines. Gardner never topped the time O'Brien mooned him, but isn't above taking the low road for a big laugh. One of Gardner's legendary gags is to wait for longtime weatherman Dave Roberts to begin his report. As Roberts says “We're bracing for strong wind gusts today,” Gardner passes gas. Loudly. Roberts and the crew start to laugh, then keep laughing until the camera returns to Gardner, red-faced and giddy, practically in tears. It's fitting that even when you think you're seeing a different side of him — Look, honey, they're all cracking up again! — he never lets you in on the joke.
He's more restrained around Tynan, but not above hiding the slippers she wears around the studio, or weaving a ribald tale now and then. On occasion, the prankster in him even slips out in public. Longtime competitor Larry Kane recalls standing outside the Sheraton in New York City while covering the 1992 Democratic National Convention when suddenly he was grabbed from behind and taken to the ground. Kane rolled over to see Gardner, who was laughing at his successful tackle. “I thought I was being mugged,” Kane says. “That was the most fun I've had with him in 20 years.”
And that's precisely why Gail Shister doesn't know about every time Gardner farts on the set, and certainly why it's taken him three decades to admit he hasn't always been the nicest guy. Now you're getting to know Jim Gardner. He says he's mellowed in recent years — that while he's still as vocal as ever, his behavior is nothing like it used to be, even if his Action News cohorts still complain about his surly demeanor. But being his friend, or not, has nothing to do with the news, or getting you to watch him read it. He's spent his entire professional career keeping his colleagues, and you, at a distance. Those Nielsens are as strong as ever. And viewers are as far away from the real Jim Gardner as they've ever been.
Thirty years ago, a kid named Jim Goldman had a decision to make. He'd spent four years toiling in New York's news-radio circuit, and at just 25 had been named news director at a station in White Plains. He was good, and he knew it. He also knew that radio folks did broadcasting's most thankless work, and the big time — not to mention the big paycheck — was in television. He called TV stations from the Midwest to New England, but with no experience in front of a camera, he had no takers. Then he got a call from Buffalo, where a news director saw an unteachable charisma in Goldman's audition tape and decided to give the kid a shot. There was a catch, of course — the news director/lead anchor, Irv Weinstein, already had enough Jews on his newscast for a town that was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Goldman had the job, but the name had to go. It wasn't much of a decision on the kid's part, really. No way was he passing up a shot at TV news. Jim Goldman adopted an alter ego named Gardner — a guy who was going places. Goldman quietly went along with him.
From birth, Jim Goldman had been surrounded by success and steered toward it. He and his older sisters, Betty and Barbara, grew up on the Upper East Side at 1185 Park Avenue, an exclusive address made famous in author Anne Roiphe's memoir. Florence, his mother, was a homemaker, and his father, Joseph, was a well-respected surgeon, the head of Mount Sinai's renowned ear, nose and throat department. When Jim was a child, it was assumed he'd pursue medicine. “Relationships between fathers and sons can be complicated affairs,” Gardner says with a sigh, as if talking about his life is a self-exorcism, minus the head-spinning. “He would say he didn't actively impose pressure, and he'd be right. But I certainly felt it.”
Despite his father, or because of him, Goldman found success of his own. He couldn't hit a curveball, but still captained the baseball team at the Fieldston School, a prestigious academy in the Bronx where he was an ace student. Columbia University, Dr. Goldman's alma mater, accepted him as pre-med, and though his grades held up, he didn't have a natural instinct for the stuff. What he loved was sports, and after listening to Columbia games on the radio with his dad, he fantasized about being the play-by-play man for the Lions. He joined the sports department at campus radio station wkcr as a freshman, but exuded the confidence of an upperclassman. “He had a considerable amount of self-esteem,” says Jim Weitzman, a producer at wkcr. “He got up on his high horse sometimes when he believed his way was the only way.”
Goldman's talents were tested in the spring of 1968, when a group of student activists overran campus buildings, taking a dean hostage and demanding that the school sever its ties to the U.S. Defense Department. The occupation ended when 1,000 billy-club-swinging nypd officers stormed in and more than 100 students were injured. Everyone at the station became a news reporter, and Goldman, then a sophomore, was one of two lead anchors for the campus-radio coverage of the riots, which earned praise from the New York Times. “Jimmy was good,” recalls his partner on those broadcasts, Robert Siegel, now the host of npr's All Things Considered. “We gained respect from the school of journalism, and stalwarts of news reporting were holding transistor radios to their ears to listen to us.”
It was a life-changing moment for Goldman. Though it disappointed his father,
he dumped pre-med for a government-studies major and more time behind the microphone, inching ever closer to the career in which he'd literally make a name for himself.
After he reported for work at that first TV gig in Buffalo, his personality began to tear into two halves. There was Jimmy Goldman, the confident Ivy Leaguer who always had a girlfriend, whose college buddies called him “Spotty” for the white patch along the left side of his hair, who in Buffalo drove one female reporter into such a crush that she'd knock on his apartment door at all hours.
Then there was Jim Gardner, working double shifts and staying even later to learn about lip-flap and edit his own stories. There was still a little of the Columbia kid within him — like when the Saturday anchor in Buffalo left for a party and told Gardner to take over for him. He was thrown to the wolves, as he had been when he covered those campus riots, but he made it through two shows and took over the station's weekend anchor duty after that. He was such a relentless workaholic that while many of his newsroom buddies, including news director Weinstein, would cross the Niagara River to unwind at a strip club, Gardner says he didn't join them. When asked about the “Canadian Ballet” — well-known slang for G-string stress relief north of the border — his face turns to stone. “I have no idea what you're talking about,” he says. “I went to Fort Erie for their Chinese restaurants, and Toronto, once.”
But Jim Gardner was beginning to take over, and mentor Weinstein could see some of himself in his young colleague.
“He was very critical of his own work, and very critical of his co-workers,” says Weinstein. “I'm even more critical, in that sense. In broadcast journalism, your performance depends on the performance of people around you. I wasn't the most popular guy, but I think everyone would admit that's why we were number one.”
Today, Gardner hints at the reason why Jim Goldman threw himself so deeply into his work. He describes his first year in Buffalo as “pretty lonely,” and says he was so dedicated to the station partly because he had “nothing else to do.” Back home the year before, his mother had died after a long struggle with a spinal disease. He was close to her, and the void she left, coupled with his solitude and ambition, led him to seek comfort in 12-hour workdays and complete immersion in his new field.
“It was my first time away from the nest,” he says now, in a rare moment of introspection that seems to take him by
surprise. “By this time, my mother had died. I don't know, when I say that, why it was relevant, but she was no longer alive at that point. She died when I was 23, 24 … but yeah, losing your mother … She was 55 when she died. I'm 55 now. Hmm. She was younger, and I was younger than one would expect to lose a parent, so it was an obvious loss.” (Gardner's sister Betty died 12 years ago of breast cancer, at age 49.)
And that's as far as he'll dive in. If you think about it, if he thinks about it, Gardner's success is born of the talents of Jim Goldman, and the losses Goldman endured — disappointing his father, the death of his mother. His talent has always been on display, from his radio days at wkcr to his dynasty with wpvi, but the drive within Jim Gardner comes from a much more personal place. And like Action News itself — a format copied by stations all across the country — Gardner only gives you what you need to know, not necessarily the whole story.
Away from the cameras, Jim Gardner still uses his old surname. His house in Villanova is listed under Goldman, and his ex-wife, Julie, a psychologist, still goes by it professionally. Their kids together, Josh, 16, and Jenn, 13, are known as Goldmans at Friends Central. His current wife, Amy, a 30-something he met while she worked in wpvi's sales department, is Mrs. Goldman, and their children, five-year-old Emily and son Jesse, two, are also Goldmans. Back in the Action News conference room, Jim Gardner rolls his shirtsleeves up, but the conversation isn't so casual. He's a father and husband who's still friendly with his ex. He also quietly donates money and once helped a kid from William Penn High get into Columbia. But he won't discuss any of that.
His kids, though, come up twice. The first time, it's a story about how he and Josh drove to Lehigh for Eagles training camp last year, as they always do. This time, Gardner noticed the gym where a young Jim Goldman made his broadcasting debut during a Columbia basketball game. After Gardner waxed nostalgic, his son replied “Oh” — standard-issue teenage disinterest in what Pops did, like, ages ago. Then Gardner turns a tale about his kids into one about himself.
“I've had a couple instances when one of my children has someone over and hears, ‘I just found out Jim Gardner's your dad!'” he says. “It's thoroughly embarrassing. Maybe one of the reasons is that they haven't learned from me that that's something cool. You can put anybody on television twice a day, and that person will acquire larger-than-life stature.
That's because of the medium. It's not me.”
The medium has only been this kind to a handful of TV newsmen, and those who have enjoyed Gardner-like popularity are now retired or close to trading their teleprompters for Titlelists. In his mid-50s, Gardner could easily add another decade to his career before hanging it up, but as a student of sport, he would admit that even the greats — Ali, Jordan, Montana — suffered declines before accepting that it was time to say goodbye. Some observers say he's slowing down, too — that there's a little less passion in those blue-gray eyes. Perhaps it's because “Spotty” is now gray all over, or that all the years of staying ahead of the pack are wearing on him. The ratings, however, suggest the opposite. As his station's old promos once declared, except for the February 2001 ratings book, in which nbc 10 knocked wpvi to second place, Gardner's still the one. “I love what I do,” he says. “I hope to work here as long as the station will have me.”
More accurately, it's the viewers who are keeping him in business, even without being force-fed a steady diet of Jim Gardner from the wpvi marketing department, or from Gardner himself. He's proud to be the polar opposite of Bolaris, whose personal image became inseparable from his professional one. There's a strategy to maintaining this mystery, and though Gardner insists he's never thought of this, he's too smart to have ignored it. In a town where TV news falls just below football and City Hall in terms of celebrity-making, you have a choice as an anchor. Chase the trappings of stardom, and you'll get a good table at Le Bec, and maybe even see a spike in the ratings. But if you're a talking mirror, if you're whatever viewers see when they see you, you become one of them. They'll love you for that, and when Philadelphia embraces you, it doesn't let go easily.
For Gardner, this bear hug has lasted nearly three decades, and though his accomplishments are legendary throughout abc, he says he never seriously considered accepting the offers he's had to move up to the network level. He'd find success nationally, sure. But this kind of success? There are few gigs he'd find at all satisfying, and guys named Brokaw, Rather and Jennings are cashing those checks. Fame isn't a goal of his, either; he's uncomfortable enough with the attention he gets here.
Gardner had a father who was renowned in his town, too. Dr. Goldman saved lives; his son shares television fame with everyone from newspeople to the latest Bachelorette and Oprah's therapist. Gardner's work isn't life-or-death, but he treats each newscast as if it's in critical condition and one mistake will send viewers into flatline. He still carries his Ivy League pedigree and his father's expectations with him, but Gardner's parents were both gone by the '90s. That leaves just one judge he's turning to for approval, night after night — his audience.
You have a million and one choices for news today, but you keep coming back to him, and he keeps going. Maybe all you really need to know about Jim Gardner, and Jim Goldman, is that he needs you. If you knew any more, you might not like him, but you'd still respect him. And, most importantly, you'd keep watching.