Author: American History Makers Staff      Published: 5/14/2021         AHM

Rashida Jones, president of MSNBC (left) and Kimberly Godwin, president of ABC News (right).
Today, African Americans make up 13.3% of the overall television news workforce with just 7.4% appearing on television, compared to whites representing 73.4% of the workforce and 70.2% of those appearing on television. When it comes to those in leadership positions, African Americans make up just 3.9% compared to whites comprising 82.6% of leadership nationwide.[1][2] Recent hires, though, are expanding the number of African Americans in high-level positions within the television news industry. Rashida Jones—a Hampton University graduate who climbed the ranks at The Weather Channel—recently became president of MSNBC in February, making her the first African American woman to lead a cable news network; and Kimberly Godwin—graduate of Florida A&M University, home to the first accredited journalism program at an HBCU—is now president of ABC News. Their examples bring back thoughts of an earlier time when there were firsts in network news during the historic racial unrest of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement.
Elbert “Big Man” Howard, deputy minister of information for the Black Panther Party, speaking at a press conference, Washington D.C., November 27, 1970.
In her interview, Carole Simpson, the first African American woman to anchor a major network newscast in 1988 on ABC’s World News Tonight, spoke poignantly of this time: “People [at news networks] were running around… ‘We got to find somebody black to cover what’s going on in the black community.’ …The Black Panthers [Black Panther Party] would hold news conferences, Fred Hampton and… CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]… And they would say, ‘You can’t cover our news conferences unless it’s a black reporter and an all-black crew.’”[3] Paul Mason, former senior vice president of ABC News, added that for decades, though, “the only black people were… sound recordists, occasional cameramen, not many, tape editors and then one or two correspondents.”[4]
ABC News’ Malvin Goode (far left) interviewing Nigerian ambassador Simeon Adebo (far right) while (from left to right) Muhammad Ali, Rahman Ali, and Malcolm X watch. United Nations, New York City, March 4, 1964.
In 1962, Malvin Russell Goode became the first African American news correspondent for a major television network when he was hired by ABC Television News as its United Nations reporter in New York City. Goode worked previously as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier and later as news director for Pennsylvania’s WHOD radio station. Robert Sengstacke, former president of the Chicago Defender newspaper, recalled Goode’s time at the Pittsburgh Courier: “Mal Goode [Malvin R. Goode], and a number of the sports editors, went around the country and… [brought attention to] black athletes. And… if Mal Goode tells it–it was he and [sports writer] Wendell Smith that found Jackie Robinson.”[5] Years later, Robinson publicly complained to ABC executives about the lack of black reporters, leading to the creation of a new United Nations reporter position. Over forty candidates applied, but it was Goode who stepped into this historic role.[6]
Max Robinson on the set of ABC World News Tonight, undated.
Max Robinson, one of the forty-four National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) founders, began his television news career in 1959 reading news for WTOV-TV in Virginia while behind the network’s logo, keeping him from view. Fired for removing the logo, he went on to serve as a correspondent and camera operator for Washington, D.C.’s WTOP-TV and then as a correspondent and later their first African American news anchor before joining ABC’s World News Tonight as one of three co-anchors, thus becoming the first African American national broadcast news anchor in 1978. Brenda Wood, reporter and news anchor for Atlanta, Georgia’s WAGA-TV and WXIA-TV, recalled: “I remember when JC Hayward and Max Robinson arrived at Channel 9 in Washington [D.C.]… they were the first blacks that I saw on TV giving the news. So, my mom [Alma Montgomery Blackmon] was very, very proud of that. She loved Max Robinson.”[7] Television commentator Roland Martin added: “There were people who I watched and to see someone who looks like me was important. It really was Max Robinson… to watch him perform was great.”[8]
Dorothy B. Gilliam soon after arriving at The Washington Post, c. 1961-1962.
Lawyer Amy Robertson Goldson explained: “There weren’t really all that many opportunities back then for African Americans to receive training… there were a lot more African American Broadcasters [in local news in the] early ’70s [1970s] …that were only able to get their foot in the door because they started as secretaries, administrative assistants, production assistants.”[9] NABJ, founded in December of 1975, also played a critical role in those early years. Dorothy B. Gilliam, former NABJ president and columnist for the Washington Post, stated the NABJ’s “agenda consisted of… getting people hired, getting people promoted, bringing more into the pipeline, getting better coverage… [And] more balanced coverage of the community… Fighting to make sure that stories had more context… [And] just trying to take a media that basically was segregated and to bring it into touch with the realities of America.”[10]
Marquita Pool-Eckert in her office while working for CBS Sunday Morning, c. late 1990s.
This fight was by no means an easy one, and African Americans in the industry endured hostile workplaces while bringing about change. Marquita Pool-Eckert, Emmy Award winning producer with the CBS Evening News and CBS Sunday Morning, recalled her early career at CBS in the 1980s: “At that time… we were fresh off the riots, fresh off of completely segregated… I don’t even know if it was considered affirmative action at the time… I just know they were looking… for somebody black. That’s how we all got jobs at that time… And, they didn’t want me there. They didn’t think I could do it… Executive producer was nasty to me… they didn’t speak to me for a long time.”[11]
Carole Simpson on the set of ABC World News Tonight, undated.
In her 2007 interview, Carole Simpson described the changes in newsrooms that started to happen in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the “corporate takeover” of network news: “We were all bought. Disney [The Walt Disney Company, Burbank, California] bought us [ABC]. GE [General Electric] bought NBC… Viacom [Viacom Inc.]… bought CBS. And then news became just another budget item. I mean before the networks… we want you to be good. We want you to have the money you need to cover the news and all that. And then these people come in, and it’s like, hey, news is too expensive… with the decline of the news audience… nobody’s talking about diversity anymore, it’s become a bad word like affirmative action.”[12]
Gwen Ifill on the set of her show Washington Week in Review, October 1999.
Gwen Ifill (1955 – 2016), the first African American woman to host a political talk show on national television, Washington Week in Review, described the continuing rampant discrimination of the 1990s: “Some years after I was at The [Washington] Post [1984-1991], I remember having a conversation with the person who was in charge of newsroom recruitment, who, when I asked him why it was we didn’t have enough African Americans in the newsroom, his answer to me with a straight face was that, so many had left and it turned out that none of them were qualified… he reached in his desk, and he pulled out a yellow legal pad with a list of names on it, and began to tick off to me what was wrong with each of these people who had left the paper. I was horrified. He was creating a paper trail to prove why diversity was a bad idea… But what it did was told me what the mindset was and what we had to overcome in order to get past that mindset.”[13] Northwestern Professor Ava Greenwell, who teaches broadcast writing, reporting and producing classes, recently released a book on this very issue, titled Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News. She highlights the issues African American women face in the industry, including “the fear of making a mistake, and ‘Intellectual Theft Syndrome,’ in which these women’s ideas were stolen, often by white men… leading to premature retirements or breaks from the field.”[14]
Deborah Roberts on the set of ABC’s 20/20 program, c. 1995.
Television news reporter and correspondent Deborah Roberts, when recalling her time with NBC, explained how she dealt with the hostility: “I remember a correspondent who is no longer with NBC… who saw this war [Persian Gulf War] as his opportunity to build his star power… he said something to me like, ‘Well, you may as well get out of the way because this is my assignment’ …I remember just being dumbfounded by how abrasive he was and just how egotistical he was… but I decided… that’s just not my game. I’m just going to… do my job and do my thing and work hard, and let it pay off. And, ultimately, it did… it was really more about the day to day grind of just my energy and my enthusiasm… And this guy had all kinds of problems… and we haven’t heard of him since. So, I think I learned a lot about ways to play the game… you do have to be aggressive… you do have to be assertive… so much of this is about being in the right place at the right time, but also standing up for yourself, sticking up for yourself.”[15]
Reverend Jesse Jackson speaking on the presidential campaign trail, 1984.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose presidential campaign presented a unique opportunity to diversify the newsrooms while providing significant growth opportunities to those who then became nationally known journalists, spoke of the “two-ness trap” of African American journalists when he spoke at the 1984 National Association of Black Journalists’ convention: “The African American journalist is trapped in this two-ness. On one hand you are covering a community that is enraged, and fighting for freedom and power… But you’re reporting to another community that is resisting and usurping and disallowing the sharing of power. And then you’re judged by the appraisers, the owners, the chief beneficiaries of the status quo, the editor and publisher. What a crossfire! …And so the needle’s in your backside and the scissors are in your chest.”[16]
HistoryMaker and current NABJ President Dorothy Tucker addressing the press, 2019.
Reverend Jackson’s words have proven true time and time again when those once welcomed found themselves again on the outside because of a controversial statement or position. So, let’s see if these days with the George Floyd and “woke” movements will present a different story… a different path that has more permanence than has existed before. This story of African Americans in network news is one that is still very much being written.
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“We want to thank Anne Osterman from VIVA and our other university contacts for working with us. We look forward to exposing as many as possible to our historically rich collection of the African American experience.”
VIVA is comprised of the following 39 institutions: Blue Ridge Community College, Central Virginia Community College, Christopher Newport University, College of William & Mary, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, Danville Community College, Eastern Shore Community College, George Mason University, Germanna Community College, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, James Madison University, John Tyler Community College, Longwood University, Lord Fairfax Community College, Mountain Empire Community College, New River Community College, Norfolk State University, Northern Virginia Community College, Old Dominion University, Patrick Henry Community College, Paul D. Camp Community College, Piedmont Virginia Community College, Radford University, Rappahannock Community College, Richard Bland College, Southside Virginia Community College, Southwest Virginia Community College, Thomas Nelson Community College, Tidewater Community College, University of Mary Washington, University of Virginia, University of Virginia’s College at Wise, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Highlands Community College, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia State University, Virginia Tech, Virginia Western Community College, and Wytheville Community College.
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For more information and to apply, please click here: www.thehistorymakers.org/student-brand-ambassador
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[1] “2020 Research: Newsroom diversity,” RTDNA, Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, September 9, 2020, accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.rtdna.org/article/2020_research_newsroom_diversity
[2] “NEWS REPORTER STATISTICS IN THE US,” Zippia, last updated January 29, 2021, accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.zippia.com/news-reporter-jobs/demographics/
[3] Carole Simpson (The HistoryMakers A2007.249), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 9, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 10, Carole Simpson recalls the growing number of black television reporters.
[4] Paul Mason (The HistoryMakers A2005.038), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, February 4, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Paul Mason describes efforts to increase diversity in broadcast journalism in the 1970s and 1980s.
[5] Robert Sengstacke (The HistoryMakers A2003.305), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 19, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, Robert Sengstacke talks about African American sports editors who discovered Jackie Robinson.
[6] Samuel Momodu. “Malvin Russell Goode (1908 – 1995),” Blackpast, October 1, 2016, accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/goode-malvin-russell-1908-1995/
[7] Brenda Wood (The HistoryMakers A2014.072), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 21, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, Brenda Wood remembers watching JC Hayward and Max Robinson on Channel 9 in Washington, D.C.
[8] Roland Martin (The HistoryMakers A2012.063), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 2, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Roland Martin talks about black role models in the media and television.
[9] Amy Robertson Goldson (The HistoryMakers A2004.128), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 17, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Amy Robertson Goldson talks about TV broadcaster Max Robinson.
[10] Dorothy B. Gilliam (The HistoryMakers A2003.266), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 13, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 7, Dorothy B. Gilliam explains the goals of the National Association of Black Journalists in the 1970s.
[11] Marquita Pool-Eckert (The HistoryMakers A2005.211), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, August 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 6, Marquita Pool-Eckert recalls challenges at CBS.
[12] Carole Simpson (The HistoryMakers A2007.249), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 9, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 6, Carole Simpson describes the history of news network ownership.
[13] Gwen Ifill (The HistoryMakers A2012.058), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 8, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 8, Gwen Ifill reflects upon the lack of diversity in The Washington Post’s newsroom.
[14] Rebecca Aizin. “Medill Prof. Ava Greenwell released Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News in March 2021,” The Daily Northwestern, April 13, 2021, accessed May 10, 2021. https://dailynorthwestern.com/2021/04/13/ae/medill-prof-ava-greenwell-publishes-book-ladies-leading-the-black-women-who-control-television-news/
[15] Deborah Roberts (The HistoryMakers A2007.213), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, July 26, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Deborah Roberts describes lessons that she learned as a correspondent.
[16] Reverend Jesse Jackson, “Address at the National Association of Black Journalists’ convention” (speech, August 18, 1984) The Root, https://journalisms.theroot.com/jesse-jackson-to-black-journalists-in-1984-you-work-i-1825091409