Tuesday, May 1, 2012

ABC's Max Robinson

Journalist Max Robinson was born on this day in history.  His television work was very significant to me when I was just starting my career in broadcast.  I wish Max Robinson was remembered more than he is nowadays.  It seems that he's been placed on a back shelf in the history room of ABC News.  He shouldn't be.  Max Robinson was the first African-American journalist chosen to anchor a network evening newscast during the week.  During his time from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Robinson co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.
One day in Milwaukee, I spent a few taxing hours with Mr. Robinson.  Hours that went from day into night.  He co-anchored the ABC evening news from the Chicago bureau.  I worked for the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee, WISN TV.  He came into town to do promotion for the network newscast at our station.  That night, our WISN general manager held a formal reception for Max Robinson at his home.  This was my first TV job and I was shooting a feature on the ABC news anchor for our edition of the syndicated show, PM Magazine.  This was in the early '80s.  The hours were taxing because TV equipment was clunkier and heavier then.  My cameraman and I had to tote that stuff as we followed Mr. Robinson to his appearances.  One could tell that you didn't trifle with this journalist.  He was formidable. He was a gentlemen yet he had his angers.  Some of those angers, notably, were over the network news images of black people.  Max Robinson was a hard news journalist.  I've never been a hard news journalist.  I'm more the programming side.  PM Magazine was an entertainment show.  On it, I was movie critic and celebrity interviewer.  As an interviewer, I take my work as seriously as a network journalist takes hardcore news.  After I taped an interview of him, he complimented me on asking good questions.  Questions that weren't all easy.  "You did the work," he said.  That compliment, from him, meant a lot to me.  It still does.
If I had to choose a dramatic monologue for an acting audition or an acting class,  I've often thought of chosing the "I'm mad as hell" speech from the movie Network.  But I would not copy the late, great Peter Finch.  The inspiration for my Howard Beale would be Max Robinson.  He had angers and demons, just like Howard did.  Race makes news.  Recently, there was flack with ABC's The Bachelor for never having an African-American bachelor in all its seasons.  Race was at the heart of news coverage of the 20th anniversary of the LA Riots.  Does network news with its major players ever turn the camera around and check the racial equality in its own world?  Max Robinson left ABC in 1984.  No black journalist has anchored the network evening news since Max Robinson did.  Not on ABC, NBC or CBS.  If I had a program like my old VH1 prime time talk show, I'd like to have someone like Katie Couric on and talk about that.  She'd be perfect for an opinion.  The paperback edition of her latest book, The Best Advice I Ever Got, is out.
She wrote about race in one chapter, a chapter that includes how much she loved Broadway's acclaimed revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific.  Racial intolerance is a subject in that musical drama.  Katie famously worked on the Today show and was there for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2002.  Today show talent present and past gathered for that show, from Barbara Walters and Tom Brokaw to Florence Henderson and Estelle Parsons.  I wondered if management noticed that, in fifty years, the NBC news program had only two black on-air talents -- Bryant Gumble and Al Roker.  Only two in half a century.  As an African-American who practically grew up watching Today, I'd noticed it for a long, long time.  My question to Katie would be:  If, inside, she was still Katie Couric -- had her mind, soul, skills, talents, personality, everything -- but instead of looking like this on the outside ---
she looked like this --- like early Cicely Tyson -- how would that have affected her career?
If Katie Couric looked like early Cicely Tyson, would she have had the same success she's had and is still having?  If she was a black journalist like Max Robinson, would she have gone from Today show host on NBC, to anchor of the CBS Evening News, to new member of the ABC News family with her own talk show deal?  Seriously, that questioning could make for some interesting conversation.  As for Max Robinson, I'm positive it was not easy for him to break through a color barrier in his profession when he did.  He did break through and he made us proud.  Think about it.  No other African-American has anchored the network evening newscast during the week since Max Robinson had ABC anchor duty in the early 1980s.

Former ABC network news anchor Max Robinson would be 73 today.  He died of AIDS in 1988 at age 49.

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