- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

They aren’t easy to remember, but there were a few periods when the evening news-anchor desks at the major broadcast networks weren’t the exclusive domain of white men.

Barbara Walters became the first woman anchor in 1976 when ABC paired her with Harry Reasoner on its evening newscast. They failed to gel, so the network broke them up in 1978.

CBS added Connie Chung to its newscast as Dan Rather’s co-anchor in 1993. She didn’t lift the ratings and was gone in two years.

Then there was Max Robinson.

The now-deceased Mr. Robinson, who was black, broke the color barrier in 1978 when ABC tapped him to join Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings as the original co-anchors of “World News Tonight.”

The three-man anchor team proved no more successful than the pairing of Mr. Reasoner and Ms. Walters. When Mr. Reynolds died in 1983, ABC made Mr. Jennings its sole anchor and moved Mr. Robinson to a weekend slot.

Mr. Robinson died 16 years ago this month, but his story has never seemed more relevant.

The Richmond native broke into television in 1959 when a Portsmouth, Va., station hired him to read the news. He wasn’t allowed to show his face on the air, so only his deep voice could be heard while the word “News” filled the screen.

Mr. Robinson joined the Washington area’s CBS affiliate — WTOP-TV (Channel 9), which now calls itself WUSA — in 1965. His work included operating a puppet on a children’s show, but he eventually landed at the anchor desk next to Gordon Peterson.

In a 1988 interview, James L. Snyder — the revered Channel 9 news director of the 1970s who died three years ago — recalled meeting a black viewer who told him how much Mr. Robinson meant to her family.

“When the news came on … she would sit her children in front of the TV and say, ‘You see how he’s dressed? You see how he sounds? That’s the way I want you to look and sound,’ ” Mr. Snyder recalled.

Mr. Robinson was bright and poised on the air, but his star at ABC faded because he was outspoken and haunted by personal demons that stemmed from low self-esteem. He drank heavily and died of AIDS.

Except for the Asian-American Ms. Chung, the minorities who followed Mr. Robinson to the network anchor desks ended up with weekend assignments. It isn’t clear when the networks will give minorities another shot at a main seat.

Mr. Jennings is entrenched at ABC and Brian Williams just succeeded Tom Brokaw at NBC. Few minorities are mentioned as successors to CBS’ Mr. Rather when he steps down in March; MSNBC’s Lester Holt is the most prominent.

On the other hand, in the age of the Internet, the evening newscasts are no longer the vanguard of electronic journalism.

“Those newscasts have lost so much of their prestige, I’m not sure that’s something black journalists should even aspire to,” said Wayne Dawkins, author of “Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim the Mainstream.”

But, as Mr. Dawkins added, “the question should be raised.”

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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