Max Robinson, a Largely Forgotten Trailblazer for Black Anchors


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Max Robinson, left, in 1978 with his ABC news team: Roone Arledge, who hired him, and his co-anchor colleagues, Frank Reynolds, center, and Peter Jennings, right.

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Associated Press

When NBC announced on Thursday that Lester Holt would replace the beleaguered Brian Williams as anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” it was widely applauded.

Mr. Holt, 56 and African-American, was hailed on Twitter as a trailblazer — the “first black news anchor” — by Beverly Johnson, a groundbreaker in her own right as the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue.

“It’s about time!” Richard Prince, a columnist who writes on media and race, told CNN Money. And the National Association of Black Journalists called Mr. Holt’s new role “thrilling” and “historic” in a statement.

But few news reports mentioned or did more than give a passing reference to the pioneering journalist who predated Mr. Holt in the anchor’s chair: Max Robinson, who died in 1988 from complications of AIDS. He was the first African-American to co-anchor the news on a national network, on “ABC World News Tonight,” more than 35 years ago.

With his elegant three-piece suits, close-cropped Afro and buttery announcer’s voice, Mr. Robinson was a model of on-air cool in the 1970s, when the nation was debating affirmative action and redefining societal norms in the wake of the civil rights movement.

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Lester Holt, who will replace Brian Williams as anchor of “NBC Nightly News.”

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Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Mr. Robinson, then in his 30s, seemed like the right man for the time. He was a highly regarded local newscaster in Washington, D.C., college-educated and with strong views about racism and equality. But he was not so outspoken that he would offend ABC’s mainstream audience.

“It was a breakthrough,” said Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist friendly with Mr. Robinson who was hired to help him write his autobiography. (It was never published.) “Max helped open the door for a lot of other journalists,” Mr. Page said, including, he added, Mr. Holt.

But being in the vanguard came at a price. Though the African-Americans Carole Simpson, Russ Mitchell and Mr. Holt later served as weekend anchors, the daily news business in Mr. Robinson’s era was predominately male and white, fueling Mr. Robinson’s concerns about racism. He never quite fit into the clubby, competitive culture of network television.

And Mr. Robinson struggled with alcoholism, his at-times unpredictable behavior aggravating challenges in his personal and professional life and making him a complicated figure in a way that some other well-known “firsts,” like Jackie Robinson and Sandra Day O’Connor, were not.

“Lester Holt is in a more enviable position than Max,” said Barbara Matusow, a journalist and author of “The Evening Stars,” a behind-the-scenes look at network news. “Everyone is pulling for Lester Holt. That wasn’t the case for Max Robinson.”

Mr. Robinson was born in Richmond, Va., in 1939, the second of four children whose father, Maxie, was a teacher and sports coach celebrated in their community. Richmond was segregated then, and Mr. Robinson’s younger brother, Randall, a civil rights activist and author, said: “When we’d board buses, we had to walk to the back of the bus. To buy Chinese food we had to go to the back door.”

Mr. Robinson attended Oberlin College. (He did not graduate, said his brother.) And their parents instilled in them a sense of cultural pride. “Max wasn’t going to change who he was,” nor obscure it, said the columnist Mr. Page.

In 1959, Mr. Robinson was hired to read the news at a TV station in Portsmouth, Va. He was not allowed to show his face, though, and was hidden behind a screen with the station’s logo. “One day Max instructed the people to take the screen down,” his brother said, so the audience could see him. He was fired the next day.

Mr. Robinson moved to Washington and, in 1966, appeared as a guest on “Meet the Press.” “I remember seeing his head and thinking: ‘Oh, my God. Max is on national television,’ ” Randall Robinson said. “We lit up the family telephone circuit.”

Three years later, he became the first African-American co-anchor at WTOP in Washington, teaming with Gordon Peterson, a well-liked local figure. Ratings soared and so did Mr. Robinson’s popularity.

He became a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists. He mentored young reporters. “He was a tremendous presence on the air,” Ms. Matusow said. “He was mobbed with admirers whenever he went out in Washington.”

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In 1979, Peter Jennings, Frank Reynolds and Max Robinson.

Credit
ABC Photo Archives/ABC, via Getty Images

But even then stories of Mr. Robinson’s erratic behavior abounded. In 1973, he walked out to the patio of his home, according to reports at the time, and shot a gun in the air. Mr. Robinson apologized, and the outburst was later attributed to grief over his father’s death. His three marriages were unsuccessful. “He was something of a ladies man,” Mr. Page said.

Still, Mr. Robinson drew the attention of ABC executives who wanted to overhaul “World News Tonight.” In 1978, he was hired from WTOP to become one of a new trinity of co-anchors that included the veteran newsman Frank Reynolds, based in Washington, and Peter Jennings, then an international correspondent in London. Mr. Robinson, for his part, would be based in Chicago and handle national stories.

“This was a big deal,” Ms. Matusow said. “Being an anchor was much bigger than it is today.”

Chicago television critics gave the newcomer little leeway. “They were just as vicious as they could possibly be,” Roone Arledge, the television executive who hired him, told Vanity Fair in a 1989 profile of Mr. Robinson.

But the star anchor periodically invited scrutiny. According to Vanity Fair, Mr. Robinson wore a fur coat to cover a fire in Los Angeles, forcing a producer to scramble to find him a more suitable jacket. His colleagues, too, could be dismissive.

Peter Jennings, who later became the sole anchor of “World News Tonight,” said of Mr. Robinson in Vanity Fair, “If he loved reporting more, I think his anchoring job would have had more strength.”

Mr. Robinson saw it differently, Ms. Masutow recalled. “Max, himself, felt a victim of racism,” she said. “He had his ideas and they didn’t take to them. Instead it was, ‘Here, read your copy.’ ” She added, “I think it was a shock to go to a network that looked down on you. ”

Mr. Robinson had begun to drink heavily. When Mr. Reynolds, his co-anchor, died in 1983, Mr. Robinson missed the funeral. “He would attribute ‘no shows’ to blackout drunkenness,” Mr. Page said.

Mr. Robinson was sidelined at ABC when Mr. Jennings was named sole anchor of “World News Tonight” in 1983. He left ABC and got a job as an anchor at a local television station in Chicago. He retired in 1985.

An ABC spokesman said executives were not available to comment about Mr. Robinson or his career at the network. But in the Vanity Fair article, Mr. Arledge, who died in 2002, conceded that ABC made missteps. “We should have realized that we’d taken a fragile flower and put it into a very difficult environment and we had to do more to nurture it,” he said.

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Robinson received a diagnosis of AIDS. Mr. Page said Mr. Robinson denied being gay and attributed the disease to an active sex life. “We would go to his apartment in Marina City and just talk,” said Mr. Page, referring to Mr. Robinson’s apartment on the banks of the Chicago River. Mr. Robinson, too, was cognizant of his impact on future generations of African-American broadcasters.

“If he didn’t do his job right,” Mr. Page said, “he knew they weren’t going to have another one for a long time.”



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