Julian Bond’s death this past weekend coincided with the date of his 1970 commencement address to young people of color who had just completed training to become rookie news reporters around the country. They were enrolled in Columbia University’s Summer Program in Broadcast Journalism for members of racial minorities.
The students — average age 26, all college graduates, but hardly any who were previously motivated to enter a field in which they saw no one who looked like them — all had guaranteed jobs awaiting them, which is what made the competition to get into the program so intense.
The program sprang from the mind of the former president of CBS News, Fred W. Friendly, who by then — right after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — was serving as media adviser to the head of the Ford Foundation and, at the same time, as Edward R. Murrow Professor of Journalism at Columbia. He appointed me director of the faculty. I hired the finest broadcast journalists we could find, including network correspondents and producers.
Most of the students were black; a few were Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, Asian-American or American Indian. Standing before them in the auditorium at the Ford Foundation — which along with NBC and CBS had paid for the expensive program — Julian Bond had a simple message for them:
“Go out … and slay the dragon!”
By that he meant not that they should become propagandists for the civil-rights movement, but that they should dig out and report the truth, as best they could determine it, and report that to their audiences. They could bring to the discipline of reporting the experiences they had had or had witnessed that were missing from the white perspective that set the agenda for news.
In the early days of the Summer Program’s 11-week boot camp, for the several years it ran at Columbia, incoming students expressed skepticism about the faculty’s goal. Many students thought we were trying to make them white. It usually took about three weeks for them to understand that all we were trying to do was to tell them everything we knew, so that they could survive and thrive.
Many of them have thrived, not only as reporters and anchor people in front of the camera, but also as decisionmakers who exert power behind the scenes.
One of them is Maureen Bunyan, who completed the program in 1970, started work in Milwaukee, then moved on to Boston and New York before becoming one of the most successful anchor people in Washington, D.C., where she has excelled for more than 30 years. In 1975, she was one of 44 people who founded the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), which conducted its 40th-anniversary annual convention here in Minneapolis just a few days ago.
Bunyan has mentored many young people along the way, including Angela Davis and Amelia Santaniello, both longtime mainstays at WCCO-TV. She also founded the International Women’s Media Foundation, which trains women around the world to report news.
When I walked into the Minneapolis Convention Center at the NABJ event, I saw more than 1,500 professional newspeople, and many college students aspiring to careers in journalism, and I instantly compared that with the number of black reporters who I could remember were working in the business in 1968: only one, Mal Goode of ABC News, who covered a backwater beat — the United Nations, which few people, including his employers, cared much about.
Now, to see 1,500 or more black journalists in the same place was thrilling. Yet that number is still too small; news organizations everywhere need more people of diverse backgrounds to add perspective to coverage.
One day in the Columbia program, when we were making morning assignments to students to go out into the city to cover breaking news, the major story was a strike of unionized sanitation workers — something New Yorkers dreaded, because piles of bagged-up garbage would be crowding the curbs and, in the heat of the summer, spreading foul smells through neighborhoods. I was in the process of dispatching a reporter and a camera crew to the neighborhood around W. 86th Street and Broadway, an upper-middle-class, almost all-white area.
Another faculty member — Dale Wright, a pioneer black journalist whose earliest work on migrant labor was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize — interrupted me and said, “How about sending the crew to Harlem instead?”
He did not have to say another word. His suggestion was a powerful lesson: We see what we know. It’s the unseen that we need to discover and understand. And if you’re anything but white, you have an advantage of perspective that any newsroom would do well to embrace.
That’s what it means to “slay the dragon.”
Gary Gilson, who began as a reporter for the Minneapolis Star, had a long career in television news and documentaries in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, and served 14 years as executive director of the Minnesota News Council.