Ch. 2's Donn Johnson Talks about TV News, Politics, Management and Racial Bias
Bishop, St. Louis Journalism Review
Experienced, articulate and out-spoken, Donn Johnson, anchor on KTVI (Channel 2), is well-known as a union leader and as a commentator on the media. He is a frequent speaker to civic groups and rarely holds back on his criticisms of his own industry.
Johnson, 49, was born and reared in St. Louis. He is a graduate of Beaumont High School and Webster University.
He began his broadcasting career in radio. In 1972, he became the first full-time African-American reporter on WlL-AM. In 1978, he moved to television, starting as a weekend reporter on Channel 2. He has been at the station ever since. For years, he was Channel 2's city-hall reporter.
When The St. Louis Journalism Review asked Johnson to talk about black politicians and the press, he was willing and candid.
The following is a transcript of that conversation:
SJR: What remains TV news' greatest shortcoming?
JOHNSON: The lack of any meaningful representation of the African-American community in management. I've been at Channel 2 for almost two decades and we've never had a black manager in the newsroom.
SJR: How many black news directors, assistant news directors or producers work in all the St. Louis television stations?
JOHNSON: None. Zero.
SJR: Still, there are several high-profile black reporters and anchors - yourself, Sharon Stevens, Julius Hunter, just to name a few. Do you ever feet like a token - the black receptionist at an all-white company?
JOHNSON: Sometimes. Not as much anymore. But if you make the management uncomfortable - not only in broadcasting but in general in our society - then you're not the kind of black person they want to deal with. You have to be somebody who makes management comfortable. If you talk about things that are unpleasant, even if they're true, there's this tendency for them not to want to talk to you. You're seen as complaining. I've seen the same qualities in white colleagues and the management considers that feisty and wanting to get ahead. Well, nobody would like to see Channel 2 get ahead more than 1.
SJR: It seems strange that in the last 30 years or so, local television hasn't groomed a single black person for management.
JOHNSON: It is shameful that the industry - and I want to emphasize that it's the industry and not just my station - it's shameful that the industry has perpetuated the idea that if they show a black person out front, the community will be happy. That might have worked in the '60s, but it doesn't work now.
SJR: What do you think a black news director would bring to the news? What would be different?
JOHNSON: One thing would be perspective. See, many white people unfortunately often forget that in our society black Americans get a Eurocentric education, coupled with an Afrocentric education that is endemic to their lives. White people don't have that. White people only have one perspective on life - the white perspective. I'm not saying that's wrong, but that's the way it is. The resulting question is: Who's the more narrow? So it seems to me that a black person with the same education as a white person vying for a job in an urban setting is better prepared to be a news director or even a general manager. But, see, that's overlooked because your experience as a black person doesn't count.
SJR: What's the biggest change you've seen in the coverage of African-Americans on television?
JOHNSON: There is a tendency to think twice now about putting people on the air who don't speak well or who aren't very articulate. Management has grown particularly sensitive to that. And I think that's good. Not to say you shouldn't use an eyewitness, someone who is the best you can do. But sometimes, in the past, reporters would go down to the inner city and they would seek out people who spoke in extreme slang or butchered the language. They wouldn't do the same thing if they were going to, say, a rural area where people who were mostly whites were undereducated. …