Saturday, February 9, 2019

Max Robinson Made Black History

With great pride, I watched him deliver the ABC evening news. This African American man had broken through a color barrier in network TV. The television news work of journalist Max Robinson had strong significance to me when I was just starting my professional career in television. I was working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That was the same city where I'd graduated from college.  When I was growing up in Los Angeles and when I started college in Milwaukee, there were no black anchors on ABC, CBS or NBC. There were only while male journalists giving us the evening news around dinner time. I wish Max Robinson was remembered and mentioned nowadays -- especially by ABC News.  It seems like he's been placed on a back shelf in the ABC News history section. He shouldn't be. Max Robinson was the first African-American journalist to anchor a network evening newscast during the week. From the late 1970s to 1983, Mr. Robinson co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.
One day in Milwaukee in the early 1980s, I spent a few exhausting hours with Max Robinson. The hours went from mid-daytime to nighttime. My clothing went from casual to formal wear.  Max Robinson co-anchored the ABC evening news from the Chicago bureau. I worked on-air for WISN TV, the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee. I was a contributor on the city's edition of a syndicated weeknight show called PM MAGAZINE. Robinson came to Milwaukee to do promotion for the network's evening newscast and he'd be taping spots at our station.  I was taping a lead feature on him for our show which meant that the cameraman and I had to follow him around, getting soundbites here and there while toting around some heavy equipment. TV equipment was clunkier and heavier then.

Max Robinson was tall, serious, and had a commanding presence. He was formidable. A serious journalist and a serious man. But not humorless. He was a gentleman, yet you could tell that he had his righteous angers. Some of those angers, notably, were over the network news images of black people. He wanted respect for black people on camera and off camera.
It was a long day of Milwaukee meet-and-greets, tapings and quick side interviews from local print press. At night, there was a formal reception for Max Robinson. Our station's general manager arranged for me to be there with my cameraman to get some of the reception footage. In between the daytime and nighttime shoots, Robinson went back to his hotel room to rest a bit and change. I changed into a rented tux in the men's room at work before the cameraman and I loaded into the remote truck and drove over to the reception.

I'd done an interview of Mr. Robinson at the station before he got busy with taping promos. I thought it was a good interviewer. However, as the day wore on, I noticed that he gave the same exact answers to a couple of questions to other reporters that he'd given to me.

At the reception, when there was a slight lull and folks were taking advantage of the open bar, I told Mr. Robinson that I needed to talk to him again for about five minutes. This reception was in a huge private home, the home of a TV executive who graciously showed us a room we could go into, a room that would be quiet and comfortable. Max Robinson looked slightly peeved as he sat, but he sat and he answered my new questions. My new questions were more specific and asked in a way that would force him to give me fresh material. I'll give you example. "When asked about racial equality in broadcast news, you have said this several times …. "  Then I'd ask something more specific to keep him from giving me a pat answer he'd also given to others.

That second interview was a lot better than our first. It was meatier. I was nervous about pushing him for that second sit-down. He knew I'd be following him for hours to do the feature for possible national airing from our ABC affiliate. Still, he had that gravity that could be intimidating. He was the first black person to anchor a network evening newscast.  I was the first black person to be a weekly movie critic and entertainment contributor on Milwaukee television. I took my job seriously but his position, you have to admit, had the gravity.

When I was all done and while I unclipped the microphone from his tuxedo jacket, he complimented me on asking good questions, questions that were not all easy.  "You did the work," Max Robinson said. "You did the work."

That compliment from him meant a great deal to me then -- and it still does today.
Max Robinson was a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. He died of AIDS in 1988 at age 49.  A respected journalist and a TV trailblazer, Max Robinson should be remembered during Black History Month. He should also be remembered by ABC News where he worked on-air with Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds.

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