Max Robinson (1939-1988) broke racial barriers in the media industry when he became the first black television anchor in Washington, D.C., and again when he joined ABC's World News Tonight as a cohost in 1978. He fought for racial equality and more positive portrayals of African Americans throughout his career, making him a role model for many.
In 1981 noted media analyst Gerald Goldhaber wrote in TV Guide that "the paradox of network news is that the success of the show has far less to do with its informational content than with the charisma of the personalities that bring us the news." Oddly enough, one of the personalities anchoring the national news during that time was living his own paradox. Even though Max Robinson was heralded by the black community for fighting racism and injustice to become the first black network news anchor, he was constantly trying to overcome his own personal demons, which made his journey more difficult. "I think one of my basic flaws," he once told a Washington Post correspondent, "has been a lack of esteem … always feeling like I had to do more. I never could do enough or be good enough. And that was the real problem."
Robinson's quest to become a broadcast journalist and to overcome racial obstacles began in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1959 when he applied for a "whites only" job at a local television station. The owner of the station courteously allowed him to audition for the job along with four white candidates. To his surprise, Robinson was given a job reading the news on the air, though his face was hidden behind a slide bearing the station's logo. "One night," Clarence Page wrote in Chicago, "[Robinson] ordered the slide removed so his relatives could see him. He was fired the next day. The station manager told him, 'Portsmouth isn't ready for color television."' Thus began the controversial broadcasting career of Max Robinson.
"A Great Presence on the Air"
The next job Robinson landed was as a cameraman-reporter trainee at WTOP-TV (now WUSA) in Washington, D.C. Once again, he was forced to accept the racial prejudices of the times—he was given a salary that was $25 less per week than his white counterparts. Robinson made the most of this opportunity, however, and was soon promoted to full-time reporter. "He had a great presence on the air," James Snyder, a co-worker at the time, told Burt Folkart of the Los Angeles Times. "He was very meticulous about his on-air performance. He rarely made a mistake. He was very conscious that he was a role model." But many people were also beginning to talk about the personal problems that seemed to haunt Robinson. "Friends said he labored under enormous pressure," Folkart continued, "both because of his race and his fears of inadequacy."
The troubles that plagued Robinson, though, didn't prevent him from furthering his career. It was less than a year after he began his career at WTOP that he was offered a job at another Washington, D.C., station, WRC-TV. Robinson wasn't looking forward to becoming the first black reporter at yet another station. Because he was unhappy with doing only traffic reports at WTOP, he took the job.
This move proved to be both a major stepping stone in Robinson's journalism career as well as a source of more racial prejudice. "I can remember walking down the halls and speaking to people who would look right through me," Robinson told Peter Benjaminson in Contemporary Authors. "It was hateful at times … I've been the first too often, quite frankly. We firsts ought to get extra pay."
Became Washington D.C.'s First Black Anchor
Even though Robinson was spending a great deal of time fighting racism, he was also being recognized as a consummate journalist. During his three and a half years at WRC he won six journalism awards for his coverage of such events as the 1968 riots after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, the antiwar demonstrations, and the national election. It was during this time that Robinson won two regional Emmys for a documentary he did on black life in Anacostia titled The Other Washington. Robinson, however, wanted more for his career; he aspired to be a television news anchor. The news director at WRC admitted to Robinson that he had the ability, but he wasn't convinced that Washington was ready for a black anchor. So, Robinson went back to his previous employer, WTOP, in search of an anchoring position. In 1969 he became the first black anchor in Washington, D.C., when he was given a job co-anchoring the midday newscast at WTOP. Two short years later, he was made co-anchor of the prestigious 6:00 pm and 11:00 pm newscasts with Gordon Peterson, the man that Robinson would later call the best partner he ever had.
Max Robinson had finally made it to the big time; he was now anchoring the top-rated newscasts in the city. "On camera," Bart Barnes of the Washington Post wrote, "Robinson had a quiet, authoritative delivery, a deep resonant voice and a serious demeanor that inspired trust and confidence in his viewers." But even with all the accolades that were being showered on him, there were those who worried about his mental health. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry observed, "Even then, the demons had made themselves known. Indeed, it seemed to his friends that Max was forever the subject of some macabre competition between his demons and his manifest talent." In 1973 personal difficulties rendered Robinson a subject in the news, rather than just a reporter of it. Distraught over the death of his father, Maxie, Robinson fired a gun into the terrace of his apartment. A simple on-air apology, however, ended the incident and heightened his appeal as one of the city's premier media personalities.
A Controversial Figure at ABC News
In 1978 ABC News President Roone Arledge, impressed with the work that Robinson was doing, gave him the chance to be the first black network anchor, though it would not be a solo job. Arledge had decided to experiment with a new concept by offering America its first anchor trio featuring Frank Reynolds reporting from the Washington desk, Peter Jennings from the foreign desk in London, England, and Max Robinson from the national desk in Chicago, Illinois. So Robinson left his beloved Washington, where he was honored with a Max Robinson Day by the city council, to begin a new life in Chicago cohosting World News Tonight.
"Robinson arrived in Chicago triumphant," Chicago's Page declared, "with enough broadcast honors and viewer loyalty in Washington to make him a national hero. To all outward appearances, it was the top of Robinson's career, a time for enjoying his success, even for coasting." But, as Page concluded, "it was to be a short ride." Almost immediately, Robinson took it upon himself to fight racism at every turn and at whatever cost he thought necessary. He was constantly embroiled with his network bosses over the way news stories portrayed black America and how they neglected to reflect the black viewpoint. Robinson's integrity as a journalist and his role as a leader in the fight against prejudice made him a mentor to many young black television journalists. Unfortunately, he never felt worthy of the admiration or satisfied with his accomplishments. It wasn't long before friends and coworkers began to notice a significant change in his behavior. He became stubborn and moody, began showing up late for work or not at all, and his fondness for alcohol took on epidemic proportions.
Management at ABC was getting frustrated with the image problems that Robinson was causing them. One particular incident, a 1981 speech for students at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, began his fall from grace with network officials. "He told an audience," Jeremy Gerard of the New York Times wrote, "that the news media were 'a crooked mirror' through which 'white America views itself,' and that 'only by talking about racism, by taking a professional risk, will I take myself out of the mean, racist trap all black Americans find themselves in."' Though Robinson later apologized for the remark and assured management that he wasn't trying to single out ABC, the damage had been done.
Two years later, when Robinson skipped the funeral of his co-anchor, Frank Reynolds, where he was supposed to sit next to former First Lady Nancy Reagan, management responded by returning their network newscast to a single-anchor program. Peter Jennings was given the prime spot, while Robinson was named a weekend anchor and Washington correspondent. Frustrated about his demotion, Robinson abandoned ABC in 1978 to become the first black anchor for WMAQ-TV, a local television station in Chicago.
Even though he was reportedly being paid twice his $200,000 salary at ABC, Robinson could not find success in his new role. The local press was constantly finding fault with both his personal and professional life, which in turn pushed Robinson to vent his anger and frustration on colleagues. He claimed he was being sabotaged by coworkers who tried to make his life difficult. On one occasion, the city of Chicago got a firsthand glimpse at the extent of Robinson's personal turmoil. "Once, while the credits were rolling," Raspberry reported, "Max lit into the crew in language that would curl a sailor's hair. But the [microphone] had 'accidentally' been left open, and those choice words went out all over Chicago."
Things only worsened for Robinson after that. His excessive drinking and bouts with depression repeatedly kept him off the anchor desk. Many times it was by the choice of management, but for the most part it was because he simply never showed up for work. His co-anchors would make excuses for him at first. At one point the station announced to viewers that they had no idea where Robinson was. In 1985 his partnership with WMAQ ended.
Diagnosed With AIDS
Except for a few free-lance jobs, Max Robinson never again worked as a journalist. He spent a considerable amount of time in and out of treatment centers in the hopes of trying to recover from his alcoholism. Unfortunately, just when it appeared that he was about to put his life in order, he was hospitalized in Blue Island, Illinois, with pneumonia. It didn't take doctors long to figure out the cause of his ailment: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
For the next year, Robinson was rarely seen in public, partly because of the shame he felt accompanied having the AIDS virus, but also because the illness had progressed quickly and powerfully. He did make an appearance in August of 1988 at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in St. Louis, Missouri. A few months later, he made his final public appearance when he spoke at a reception for Howard University's School of Journalism. Though his family and friends advised him to stay in Chicago, Robinson wanted to visit the city he loved one last time. Max Robinson died while in Washington, D.C., from complications of AIDS on December 20, 1988. Leaders in the black community, along with television news stars, including Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, joined civil rights activist Jesse Jackson at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., to pay tribute to a man that had impacted both an industry and a culture. Bernard Shaw, co-anchor at Cable News Network (CNN) and one of the few blacks that has enjoyed a network anchor position, summed up his feelings for Judith Michaelson of the Los Angeles Times: "His impact will go on for generations. He was Engine No.1."
Clarence Page offered a final tribute to his friend Max Robinson in Chicago: "Some journalists are remembered for the stories they covered. Robinson will be remembered for being the story. Like Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color bar in 1947, Max Robinson won't be applauded for his home runs, but for the fact that he ran the bases."
Further Reading on Max Robinson
Contemporary Authors, Volume 124, Gale, 1990.
Broadcasting, December 26, 1988.
Chicago, June 1990.
Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1984; December 21, 1988.
Ebony, January 1979; August 1979; March 1981; August 1983.
Jet, January 9, 1989; January 30, 1989; May 1, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1988; December 23, 1988.
Newsweek, January 2, 1989.
New York Times, December 21, 1989.
People, December 28, 1982.
Time, January 11, 1988; January 2, 1989.
TV Guide, December 2, 1978; May 2, 1981.
Washington Post, December 31, 1987; December 21, 1988;December 23, 1988.