A Black TV Reporter Takes a Long Dive Into DC News

From a Washington Post story by Courtland Milloy headlined “”Surviving Deep Waters’: A Black TV reporter takes a long dive into D.C. news”:

During his 45 years at Channel 9 in D.C., Bruce Johnson became one of the most respected and highest-paid TV news reporters in the country. By the time he retired in 2020, he’d won 22 Emmys and had his likeness included on the mural outside Ben’s Chili Bowl.

In his memoir, “Surviving Deep Waters,” Johnson, 71, writes about growing up poor and without a father in Louisville….At 14, he left home to study at a seminary. But he gave up on the priesthood, because “I was also drawn to those things that most 15-year-old boys crave: girls.”

It’s a richly detailed, often humorous life’s journey. But it is his account of the decisions he made to stay in TV news that I found especially timely.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in 2020, many media organizations pledged to hire more Black reporters or other people of color. Meanwhile, Black reporters already working in newsrooms described being underappreciated and disrespected.

Many were changing jobs, if not leaving the news business altogether.

Johnson was determined to be a reporter and cover the Black community in a respectful way, so he waded in deep water and stayed for nearly a half century.

In 1972, while working at a television station in Cincinnati, the senior news editor told him, “I don’t think you’ll ever be a good writer, Bruce.” Johnson was the only Black reporter employed at the station, and the editor had made the comment loud enough for everyone in the newsroom to hear.

“Was it the kind of test that every journalist must pass at some point?” Johnson wondered in his book. Or: “Did the senior editor feel these jobs should be reserved for White men only?”

How would Johnson respond to such criticism — quit or, as he also considered doing, “unleash a series of profanities on this old White man?”

What he did was get to work improving his writing, often at night after his colleagues were gone. “I went through the newsroom trash and collected other reporters’ polished copy that had been approved,” Johnson wrote. He brought a dictionary and thesaurus, studied their work and began writing three or four drafts of a story before turning it in.

Four years later, on March 15, 1976, he was offered a job in D.C. at what was then WTOP, later to become WUSA9. As for the editor who had spurred him on, they became lifelong friends.

Johnson quickly made a name for himself covering poverty, crime, racial discrimination, Marion Barry and D.C. politics. But there were still times when he was forced to contemplate whether a White editor had made an offensive remark because he was a racist — or just a jerk.

When Johnson asked a White news director why he wasn’t on the list to cover a hurricane, the director replied, “You’re not covering the hurricane because your hair doesn’t blow in the wind.” He told the boss that talk like that could lead to a lawsuit. But the director seemed unfazed, and Johnson never got on the hurricane coverage list.

Was it an insult or a joke? Johnson let it slide. A while later, that same news director sent him on a trip around the world to visit other capital cities. Johnson produced a series of stories comparing the rights of people in Paris, Moscow, Budapest and others places to the rights of residents in D.C., who still don’t have full voting representation in Congress.

Discounting the hair comment — whether an insult or a joke — proved to be a good career move for Johnson.

Johnson recalled the time another news director snapped at him: “Bruce, why don’t you speak English?” During his brief time at the seminary, Johnson had studied Latin and Greek. He had worked hard on pronouncing words correctly….

Now his news director was cracking on his English?

“It sounded like a racial slur,” Johnson wrote. “He’s coming at me and he’s angry. I had instinctively leaped to my feet, fists clenched. I was furious. Didn’t he know I was raised in the projects? I was about to get myself fired.”

Johnson wrote that he heard his mother’s voice saying to him: “Don’t move. Uncurl your fists, but don’t sit back down because it will look like you’re backing down.” The peace between Johnson and the director was brokered during a meeting with the general manager. After the meeting, Johnson shook the news director’s hand.

But he never received an apology or an explanation for the comment. That news director eventually left, and a new one was brought in. Johnson was given his own public affairs show.

But the news business was changing. Another newly hired news director explained one of the ways how.

“He said if there is a baby deer stuck out on a frozen lake at the same time there is a shooting in the projects, where do you send the one camera crew?” Johnson wrote. The answer? “To the deer stuck on the lake. Most people will want to know how that story turns out.”

That struck at the heart of what Johnson cared about most — the plight of the people living in poor crime-plagued neighborhoods, like the one where he’d grown up. After all the effort he and others had put into getting stories about such people featured prominently in the news, the priorities seemed to be shifting back to where they were before he showed up.

“The gains made in the last year and certainly from the civil rights movements of the late 1960s and 70s cannot be taken for granted,” Johnson wrote. “Despite my success … I feel that if our progress isn’t guarded and recalibrated, history could repeat itself.”

The question now is how much deep water will the next generation of journalists, Black and White, be willing to wade through to keep that from happening?

Courtland Milloy is a local columnist for The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1975. He has covered crime and politics in the District and demographic changes in Prince George’s County, Md. He has also written for The Post’s Style and Foreign sections.

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