Flashback: Bryant Gumbel Insists MLK's Adultery Should Be Censored: 'Print the Legend'

This weekend's promotion of the legend of Rev. Martin Luther King offers a reminder that the liberal media can blatantly state that it is their job to "print the legend," and not report on a historic figure's flaws.

In the fall of  1989, King's longtime lieutenant Ralph Abernathy wrote a book titled "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down." Abernathy told the tale that Rev. King committed adultery with two women on the night before he was murdered. Bryant Gumbel, then a co-host of NBC's Today, lectured: "When the truth collides with a legend, print the legend." Our November 1989 newsletter MediaWatch reported the exchange:

Bryant Gumbel, in the Dan Rather tradition of respectful interviewing, recently assaulted Rev. Ralph Abernathy for his new book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. Attempting to downplay Abernathy's revelations of Martin Luther King's sexual adventures, Gumbel first taped, but never used, an Abernathy interview without once discussing the sex controversy.

Then, after black leaders began renouncing Abernathy as the 'Judas' of the movement, Gumbel conducted a live interview on the October 17 show which focused entirely on those four pages. He repeatedly tried to get Abernathy to renounce or apologize for his accounts, running over the next two planned segments in order to get enough time to continue his line of questioning.

When Abernathy noted that King's exploits were "common knowledge," Gumbel retorted, "It would better stated, perhaps, to say that it was common accusation." He claimed that those pages "just as easily could have been left out...one could argue that your writings prove nothing." Abernathy explained that he included the unflattering sections because, "our Bible tells us very, very clearly, 'he shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free'...I was trying to tell the true story that would not diminish the authenticity of my book."

Gumbel chose instead to quote a movie line: "When the truth collides with a legend, print the legend." When Abernathy criticized his detractors, such as Jesse Jackson, Gumbel sputtered incredulously, "I don't think I'm hearing all this."

Henry Hampton, producer of the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” sounded a similar theme in a review in The New York Times:

Mr. Abernathy and King were many things to each other - colleagues in the black church, cellmates, strategists, co-conspirators for justice - but at the personal level, they were best friends. But in friendships in which one person greatly outshines the other, a curious mixture of love, envy and competition can sometimes lead to a lingering, often unspoken resentment. Mr. Abernathy's reasons for providing a detailed description of his friend's last evening and early morning - during which King had sexual encounters with two women and a confrontation with a third close woman companion - can be known only to him. It is sadly ironic that the disclosures will almost surely do more damage to Mr. Abernathy himself than to the reputation of King.

People magazine reported at the time that Abernathy also recalled Rev. King knocking another woman "across the bed." But Gumbel says "print the legend."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis