Little Jimmy Goldman still remembers his Bar Mitzvah 55 years ago in Manhattan.
The kid, who would go on to Columbia University, where he started off as pre-med following his father’s footsteps before changing course, even recalls the name of the rabbi and the cantor, who kept promising him “one day, the cantillations will click” — and turned out to be right.
Yes, it’s all still so vivid in his mind. Just as he remembers the time he was in Israel in 1993 talking to “moderate Palestinians” at the same time Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were at the White House signing a proposed framework for peace. Or when he visited the West Bank and Jordan in March 2000 when Pope John Paul II went to Yad Vashem, then left a personal message inside the Western Wall.
Those were special on-the-job moments for the boy known as Little Jimmy Goldman growing up — the man who’s been coming into our living rooms with a different name, keeping us up to date with what’s going on in Philadelphia and the world for the past 40 years.
Yes, 6ABC Action News anchorman Jim Gardner.
“I was really uncomfortable with the name change,” said Gardner, who’s in Cleveland this week at the Republican National Convention, before rushing home to prepare for next week’s Democratic National Convention. “Basically, I’d been trying to get a job on TV for a long time with no success.
“I had this opportunity and was asked to do that — and said ‘yes.’ But my family are Goldmans, and when I sign checks, I’m definitely Goldman. And when I go to back-to-school night with my Goldman child, I’m a Goldman parent.”
Otherwise, though, it’s Gardner — and has been since the kid who was thrilled to broadcast Columbia Lions games, covered the 1968 Columbia student riots, then worked for radio stations in New York and White Plains — finally got a chance to get on air for a Buffalo TV station. Within two years, he’d become such a hot commodity that Channel 6 brought him aboard as its noon news anchor.
He’s been a fixture ever since, moving into Larry Kane’s 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. anchor seat in May 1977. Now, nearly 39 years later, he remains just as passionate, committed and determined to deliver the news with no frills for the station that’s topped the ratings since before he arrived.
“I’ve been here 40 years,” said Gardner, who was inducted into the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 2003. “With each passing year, I think I become less sure of myself, probably showing a little bit more humility.
“I didn’t show a great deal of humility in 1976 and 1977, even though I was probably totally unprepared to do this job. Maybe as a result of being insecure I compensated by acting a little bit more sure of myself than I should have.”
While Gardner may question his capability at an age where many of his peers are either retiring or winding down their careers, no one else does.
“Jim’s highly involved in the show,” said Jamie Pschorr, his producer at 6ABC the past six years and one of many current or former bosses he credits for his success. “He does a lot of the writing. He wants to know about everything that’s going on — every minute detail because, in the end, it’s his face delivering the news to everyone.
“He’s been here for decades, and that’s very rare in this industry,” she continued. “People have grown up with him. And then their family watched, so they watched. And now their families watch. It’s very uniquely Philadelphia.”
That still boggles Gardner’s mind. He said it all goes back to something one of his Columbia professors taught him.
“He said the whole idea of being objective is very difficult because we all bring to a story a combination of our own experiences,” Gardner recalled. “So it’s very difficult to remove ourselves from who were are when we write or report on something.
“But he said, ‘What we are obligated to do is be fair, no matter what experience we bring in our interpretation of an event.’ That’s sort of been my guiding principle over the years.”
Gardner’s point of view has become less common in a business that thrives more on political candidate’s tweets and Facebook posts than gathering and reporting the hard news that’s been his staple.
“So much of our business is now advocacy journalism,” said Gardner, who lives in Bryn Mawr with his wife, Amy, and teenage son and daughter — his other son and daughter are in their 20s. “And so much of what we see today, there’s no intent to be fair.
“Mainstream objective journalism still exists, but it’s commanding less of a place on the landscape than it used to. I’m not saying that’s bad as long as viewers have an option. I definitely find myself shaking my head on some of the things I see on advocacy programs. The more options we have for news consumers, the better.”
That’s why the man who hasn’t missed a convention since 1976 is in Cleveland this week, admitting he not only doesn’t know what to expect but is a bit scared to go.
“I must say never before have I found myself being as concerned about personal safety as I am now with the kinds of protests that have developed during not only his [Donald Trump’s] rallies but his appearances,” Gardner said. “We’re hearing all kinds of rumors about what we’re likely to see in Cleveland.
“I’ve been to a lot of political conventions, but I’m not sure I’m prepared to go to the RNC in Cleveland. That’s going to be unchartered territory for me, both from a reportorial standpoint and just as an experience. But from a journalistic standpoint I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be extraordinary.”
The same will be true here next week when the Democrats come to town. Gardner and the 6ABC staff will report from the Wells Fargo Center, with reporters scattered throughout the city waiting to see how things develop.
“The scope of our coverage is going to be substantially greater than ever before,” explained Gardner, whose philanthropic efforts include the Jim Gardner Scholarship at Temple University — awarded to a prospective journalism student — as well as to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “We’ll do all our newscasts from down there, but will likely fill in the gaps between with ongoing coverage — Twitter, Facebook and on our website.
“Yet coverage is not just political. It’s also a city story. Like the pope, it will be a story that involves everyone in the news department.
“The party that has the White House always gets to see what the other party does first. But I’ve never seen it segue like this — there’s usually a couple of weeks in between.”
In two weeks, though, it will all be over, and Gardner can take a deep breath and get ready for whatever comes next. For how much longer will he keep going? He immediately changes the subject, preferring to discuss how the job continues to challenge him.
Listening to him, it’s easy to forget that talking about himself is the part he likes least.
“I feel very uncomfortable,” admitted Gardner, whose last in-depth interview appears to have come in 2006. “I don’t think people who do the news should be subjects of other people who do the news. It’s not how I see myself.”
However, he very much sees himself as a proponent of the Jewish community — a man whose ties go back to his Lithuanian grandmother.
“I have strong feelings of my Jewish identity,” said Gardner, who confessed he mainly goes to synagogue during the High Holidays. “And I have strong feelings about Israel, but it would be obviously inappropriate for me to talk about it during the campaign.
“I’ve been to Israel three times, once as a tourist and twice working for the station. In 1993, when Arafat and Rabin were at the White House shaking hands, I felt we needed to be in Israel getting that story from the Palestinians. It was an utterly fascinating trip — probably the last time the moderate community of Palestinians had their moment in the sun.
“And in 2000, when the pope came to the Wall and went to the West Bank, it was my first time in Jordan and at Mount Nebo.
“I don’t wear a tallit on the air, but I’ve gone through four Bar and Bat Mitzvahs as a parent. I remember my Bar Mitzvah. The cantor who taught us, people were scared to death of him, but for some reason I liked him and he liked me.
“He said, ‘One day Jimmy Goldman, the cantillations will click.’”
That cantor knew something Philadelphians would later discover.
“People trust us because for a very long time we’ve been consistent and reliable,” said the man who continues to be amazed by the technological advancements that make everyday people would-be reporters with their own cameras. “Viewers know that while we don’t necessarily take ourselves very seriously, we take our work seriously.
“We’ve been at it for a long time, and that familiarity tends to go hand in hand with a certain kind of trust. I do feel very gratified that viewers seem to feel that way about, and I think I’m the beneficiary of it.”
So that’s the big story — and has been for 40 years — at Action News from Jim Goldman … er, Gardner, who gives no indication he’s about to sign off anytime soon.
As his old professor might say, fair enough