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Before Lester Holt, There Was Trailblazer Max Robinson (How Come No One Talks About Him?)

Before Lester Holt, There Was Trailblazer Max Robinson (How Come No One Talks About Him?)

Now that Lester
Holt is firmly established as the permanent anchor for NBC’s “Nightly News” (and one assumes with the huge salary boost that goes with it), I found it rather
distressing that many articles (and people who should know better) have been calling
Holt’s new position “a first”, “groundbreaking”,
“historic,” calling him a “trailblazer”.

I’m telling
you, these kids today… to them, anything that happened last week, is considered
ancient history. And what about the 1970s? “Wasn’t that during the prehistoric era
when dinosaurs ruled the earth?,” they wonder; “Or was that when black people were still slaves?”

It’s sad because
Holt, while it’s a big deal that he got the NBC gig, is no trailblazer or pioneer.
The honor should rightly go to Max Robinson, who, back in 1978 (the 70’s again)
became the first black anchor of a network newscast.

Yet somehow
he seems to have been forgotten. In fact, try Google for an image of Robinson.
There are a very precious few to choose form. It’s as if he didn’t exist, and that’s a disgrace, considering that he’s someone who was a genuine trailblazer.

The Virginia
native started his TV news career as news reader for a 15-minute newscast for a
local Virginia TV station, back in 1959 – a time when the very idea of a black
news anchor, let alone a black news reporter, was considered an impossibility.
The catch though was that he had to read the news off camera, behind a screen. One
day he moved the screen so that the camera could see him, and the very next day, he
was fired.

After that
he moved on to Washington DC and slowly but surely worked his way, over the
following decade, to the top, becoming, in 1969, the first ever black news anchor
for a local TV station in the country. Along the way, he won several journalism
awards and local Emmys for his journalism.

Eventually
he came to national attention when he covered a hostage siege of 134 people at
the international headquarters of the B’Nai
B’rith in Washington D.C., by a group of radical black Muslims in 1977. In fact,
Robinson was the only TV journalist that the kidnappers would agree to talk to.

That brought
him to the attention of Roone Arledge who, at the time, was head of both ABC
News and its Sports division. He was in the midst of planning a new nightly newscast that would consist of
three anchors reporting on different aspects of the news, from three different cities
– Peter Jennings in London covering international news, and Frank Reynolds in Washington handling the
White House and politics. All he needed was a third anchor in Chicago to handle
national news, and Arledge decided that Robinson was the man, and he hired him, making him the first ever black anchor for a TV network newscast in 1978.

And if there
was anyone who was made to be a news anchor, it was Robinson. Handsome and
charismatic, with a deep, resonant voice, he had that gravitas that is so needed
for any news anchor. He gave off the impression that he was a deep, serious man you
could trust. He had it in spades.

Unfortunately, while the three anchor format may have sounded innovative, it was an unmitigated
disaster. With a newscast that keeps switching form one anchor to another, it
was rather too confusing and tiresome for viewers to follow. On top of that, what Arledge
thought would be a team of anchors working together to create a great newscast, quickly turned into three rivals who despised each other and tried as much as
they could to outmaneuver and back-stab one another, in order to get as much airtime as possible on a 30
minute newscast. As a result, Robinson usually got the short end of the
stick.

Another
major problem was that, like so many people, Robinson, for most of his life, wrestled with inner demons. He was known to be
quick-tempted and subject to bizarre behavior such as the notorious incident
when, one night, he stepped outside of his home with a loaded gun and fired
several shots in the air. He later apologized and said that he did it in
response to his grief after his father’s death.

He was also married and divorced
three times.

But a bigger
issue was Robinson’s lengthy battle with alcoholism, which took its toll on
him professionally and personally. I still recall a friend of mine who, at the
time, was working as a waitress in a bar, telling me that she would regularly see
Robinson at the bar, sitting in a dark corner, passed out.

His drinking
increased as his woes with the ABC newscast got worse, while he battled racism at
the network. As one friend said about him during that time: “I think it was a big shock to go to a network that looked down on you.”

And as his drinking
got worse, he started having blackouts after which he would wake up in some strange place, or even a strange city, and not remember how he
got there. Eventually he began to miss his newscast, since no one would know where he was.

Things were
getting bad, and got even worse when Robinson failed to show up at Frank Reynolds’
funeral in 1983, after his death from a long illness. That was a breach that
could not be healed, and ABC dumped him that same year, and made Jennings the sole
anchor for their newscast.

The
following year, Robinson joined the local Chicago NBC station to become their
main news anchor, but those demons still held on, and he left the job in 1985, effectively
retiring from broadcast news.

He spent the
next few years adrift, in and out of different rehab centers, while also dealing
with another issue he had kept secret for years – that he was HIV
positive, which had turned into full blown AIDS. He eventually died from the
disease in 1988, at the still young age of 49.

It was a sad,
inglorious end to a true trailblazer, and like all black trailblazers, he had to
endure slights, insults and setbacks to pursue his dream. But practically every
TV reporter, and news anchor – whether national, local or cable – owes Robinson a
huge debt of gratitude. They wouldn’t be where they are now if he hadn’t been
the one to show them the way, and to prove that it was possible.

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