Bruce Johnson: Washington DC Television Anchor and Street-Savvy Reporter

From a Washington Post obit by Ellie Silverman headlined “Bruce Johnson, WUSA anchor and street-savvy reporter, dies at 71”:

Bruce Johnson, a Washington broadcast journalist and television personality for more than four decades known for his street-savvy coverage of local politics and urban affairs and for moderating community forums and debates, died April 3 in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Lori Smith-Johnson. In April 2018, Mr. Johnson ended his newscast announcing that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was taking a hiatus to undergo chemotherapy. He returned to the air later that year and retired in December 2020.

Following the groundbreaking path set by Max Robinson and Jim Vance, Mr. Johnson was part of the second wave of Black journalists to appear on camera in major markets, spending 44 years at WUSA. In 1976, he joined a popular team of news reporters and anchors at Washington’s CBS affiliate that included Gordon Peterson, J.C. Hayward, Maureen Bunyan and Glenn Brenner.

Over the decades, Mr. Johnson developed a reputation for covering grittier parts of the city, getting on-the-ground knowledge of those residents and taking their perspectives into account when asking pointed questions of city leaders.

“The real Bruce Johnson is the man you’d see out on the streets, usually two or three steps ahead of his cameraman, trying to get wherever he’s going,” said veteran Washington-area reporter Tom Sherwood. Mr. Johnson, he added, developed a style that was “friendly and brusque.”…

In his memoir “Mayor for Life,” DC Mayor Marion Barry wrote that Mr. Johnson “had always been a straightforward guy, off the record. I trusted his political insights and opinions. But he said that at the end of the day, the reporters all had to do their jobs, whether they liked what was going on or not.”

As he accumulated 22 local Emmy Awards and other honors, he gradually balanced weekday reporting and weekend anchoring duties. He also hosted “Off Script With Bruce Johnson,” a conversational newscast on national and local news stories featuring Mr. Johnson interviewing “the people behind the headlines.” He occasionally hosted documentaries and specials, including one about institutionalization of the mentally ill in Washington, and reported from world capitals such as Paris and Dakar.

In 1992, at 42, Mr. Johnson suffered a massive heart attack while on a routine assignment in Southeast Washington.

“The pain was intense and unrelenting, and I immediately thought someone had shot me,” he later wrote in his book about cardiovascular disease, “Heart to Heart: 12 People Discover Better Lives After Their Heart Attacks.” “My hands moved to my chest to put pressure on a hemorrhage that wasn’t there. No blood. No hole in my starched, white dress shirt. … The pain was somewhere deep in my chest where I couldn’t get to it.”

Mr. Johnson also interviewed other heart attack survivors and produced and moderated a documentary about heart disease afflicting the Black community, “Before You Eat the Church Food, Watch This Video.” Mr. Johnson also spoke about overcoming personal struggles, including years of heavy drinking before the heart attack and bouts with depression afterward, and became an advocate in the heart health community.

He spent two months recovering from the heart attack before returning to Channel 9 and took up running. Eight years later, he completed the 26-mile Marine Corps Marathon.

Chester Bruce Johnson was born in Louisville. He graduated in 1973 from Northern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and, in 1975, he received a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Cincinnati.

He spent four years working in Cincinnati at WCPO-TV, which was then a CBS affiliate, before joining Channel 9 in Washington. One of the first stories in the District to bring him recognition was the 1977 Hanafi Muslim hostage siege of a city government building, the Islamic Center and B’nai B’rith International. One person was killed. He was later inducted into the hall of fame of the Society of Professional Journalists’s local chapter.

He continued to cover the areas he thought were most afflicted by poverty and violence. In 2004, Mr. Johnson interviewed six Ballou Senior High School seniors about living in Washington’s poorest neighborhoods while trying to graduate from school.

“I have gone home and broken down and cried over some of these kids,” Mr. Johnson said. “They don’t have a chance.”

His first marriage, to the former Madge Williams, ended in divorce, and he married Lori Smith in 2003. They had homes in Washington and Lewes, Del….

He wrote a memoir, “Surviving Deep Waters,” published in 2022.

Throughout his career, Mr. Johnson continued to show up at news conferences and interview people on the street — a reporting role that he found more fulfilling than reading scripts behind an anchor desk.

“That’s where you really earn your money,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t see how you can come to work and every day and just anchor. Boring.”

Ellie Silverman covers protest movements, activism and local news. At The Post, she has also covered local crime and courts. She has previously reported on retail, breaking news and general assignment stories for the Philadelphia Inquirer, her hometown paper. She graduated from the University of Maryland, where she reported for the Diamondback.

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