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SADLY, GUMBEL'S A SHORT TRIP FROM JERRY SPRINGER

Bryant Gumbel's question to two women whose small children were being held hostage was this: "John Edward Armstrong says that he won't harm your children. Do you believe him?"

My question is this: What the hell kind of question is that?

Under no definition that I will ever be able to imagine is that a proper question. At that point in the Orlando, Fla., hostage crisis, there were only a few possibilities: Armstrong would either live or die when it was all over; the toddlers he had kidnapped would either be harmed or they wouldn't.

The mothers' answer was that they believed his pledge, and as it turned out, they were right. Armstrong was killed when the cops laid siege, but the kids were fine when it was all over. Whether or not the mothers of 4-year-old Malcolm Philips and 2-year-old Tedi Priest believed that Armstrong wouldn't harm them had no effect on the outcome. Nor was it a true expression of their emotions. It was just, in fact, an obscene and provocative intrusion into those feelings at the worst possible time, for one purpose and one purpose only -- to cause enough visible anxiety in them to make for "good television." Dramatic television.

The distance between that question and a Jerry Springer show full of grotesques baring their souls is a very short one.

Gumbel's attempt didn't work. His provocation of the two mothers under the most dramatic circumstances imaginable somehow managed to be as dreary and hidebound as everything else on "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel." While his old partner Katie Couric has gone on with her new partner, Matt Lauer, to increase the "Today" show dominance of morning TV, Gumbel has gone on to prove that, for all his considerable skills and sartorial splendors, he is one of the odder mirages of the past 20 years of TV.

He is by no means an untalented man. It's just that he's a man in the tragic position of one whose power has been allowed to vastly outstrip his capability. On the air, he is always capable and usually pleasant enough. To inflate such a figure to the eminence he enjoys is to let an old-boys network overrun common sense. Or to put it figuratively, to run the world at the 19th hole out of an empty golf bag.

It has always seemed to me there's a big potential network role for Bryant Gumbel and an important one. But it has nothing to do with hard news. You can see glimmers of it in his "Real Sports" show at HBO. Gumbel could become TV's first weekly prime-time investigator into all the issues suggested by a sports world driven by unimaginable amounts of money and even more unimaginable amounts of immaturity and moral vacuity.

The Latrell Sprewell case, for instance, could easily fill an hour of television with deep background and social implications. It would get ratings, too.

Not only that, CBS -- because it has no major-sport affiliation at the moment -- would be uniquely equipped to put such a groundbreaking show into prime time. It might even lower their demographics. Instead, we have Gumbel's sad and toothless contribution to the newsmagazine format, whose struggle to present news (rather than cover it) is a struggle to avoid recognition of its own diminishing relevance.

So overwhelmed has TV news been by infotainment that a solid piece of retail muckraking like Tuesday's "Ed Bradley on Assignment: Town Under Siege" (10 p.m., Channel 4) struck TV Guide's brain-dead sieve of a critic as ineffectual because it couldn't come up with any cancer victims resulting from "Big Oil's" use of Grand Bois, La., as a dump site for hazardous waste that, by legislative fiat, has been fraudulently declared non-hazardous.

As if it weren't enough to get a news documentary seen the night before Christmas Eve (opposite the usual "Dateline NBC" and an ABC Joan Lunden "Behind Closed Doors" special on the Secret Service), Bradley's inauguration of a prime-time investigative series has to contend with such a network news glut that people insist on cancer victims as the opening ante for any investigative story of consequence. Never mind that Exxon and Campbell Wells have been toxifying the life of this town since 1994 (carcinogens need a bit more time to work their magic), TV news dramas demand death -- onscreen if possible.

It seems to me Bradley's special is more than good enough doing what it does, which is telling us about a dandy little sweetheart deal in Congress that allows "Big Oil" to dump pretty much what it wants where it wants and do God-only-knows-what damage without anyone saying "boo." Meanwhile, people in this little Louisiana town have health complaints that sound like the early stages of some plague.

Let's grant they have a potentially mammoth legal case against Exxon and Campbell Wells, which does tend to pollute the purity of their claims a bit. And let's further grant that their lawyer -- whose name, honest to God, is Gladstone Jones -- looks like Central Casting's idea of a good-old-boy legal sharpie, a guy who seems to be just a few years down the road from being the party-hearty champ of fraternity life at Duke or Rice or Baylor.

But their cause, as we see it, has enough righteous pols and doctors and, most importantly, blockheaded knee-jerk opposition from pols who stand to gain from "Big Oil's" coffers to make you very uneasy, if not downright inflamed.

In other words, it's an hourlong version of the kind of thing "60 Minutes" still does better, in short form, than anyone else. And considering that Bradley's most recent "60 Minutes" gigs have been sanitations of the young Kennedys and the New Orleans police department, Wednesday night's report on government and business toxicity that won't go away is all to the good.

But then, many of us who live just one county away from Love Canal would probably have a different answer if Bryant Gumbel asked us: "Big business says they'd never harm your children. Do you believe it?"