ON ONE DAY last week, Max Robinson, an anchorman of ABC World News Tonight, was quoted in news accounts as attacking the television network for which he works for practicing racial bias during coverage of the presidential inauguration and the return of the hostages.
On another day last week, the black newsman denied that he had isolated ABC for criticism and added that he did not "intend to leave the impression that decisions at ABC News are based on racial considerations."
When I talked to the former Washington anchorman at week's end, he clarified the intent of his remarks made originally to an audience at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.: "There is a problem, the lack of communication between black and white America and the resulting distortion in the way we see each other. At the root of that problem, I believe, is a degree of unconscious racism that exists in many individuals and institutions of our society."
Will the real Max Robinson please stand up?
I happen to feel that the real Max Robinson probably was the first Max Robinson. I have to accept the spirit of that Robinson even if he somewhat modified his remarks later on. And the distance between the first Max Robinson and the clarified Max Robinson isn't that far. Let me explain.
Admittedly, Robinson was talking a bit out of school when he was quoted as saying that he "and all other black journalists were excluded from covering the stories" of the inauguration and the return of the hostages. There were blacks covering those stories.
Yet his broader remarks appealed to the gut reaction in us: They have the ring of validity because of so much else. And other events make it hard to dismiss what Robinson said, to just close the books.
First it has to be said that having to conform to certain standards in a profession is limited neither to television nor to black journalists. No anchorman, for example, would show up dressed in a yellow jogging suit to do his 6 o'clock new show. But even given the restrictions, blacks face problems that are different from whites. So Robinson's remarks say to me that some things exist beneath the surface that tell him that the validity of the black experience is not being recognized. And until the validity of the experience is recognized, the two groups can't come forth as equals and communicate. Until then, conflicts and misperceptions will dominate, with each group swimming in its own misperceptions, fears and frustrations.
Under these circumstances, the issue of what is considered "acceptable" is highly controversial. Take the case of an award-winning black TV reporter named Dorothy Reed who was suspended from her job with KGO-TV in San Francisco for wearing a cornrow hair style. In case you forgot, that's the ancient African hair style that actress Bo Derek wore in the movie "10," and for which she was crowned with considerable fame. Dorothy Reed sued her television station and said, "It's a case of white male-dominated management deciding how I should look as an 'acceptable' black woman."
Not long ago, here in Washington, it was fascinating to many people that Sue Simmons, who is now anchoring in New York City, got rid of her trademark Afro hair style when she began to anchor the evening news. I also know that other people at other stations here have been encouraged to straighten their hair even if their own preference was to wear it unstraightened. And for long years, not too far back, the feeling persisted that it was difficult for a black with dark skin to get on the tube at all.
Now clearly the major issue isn't a hair style or one's skin color.But they're related to the Robinson case because all these people are apparently being told to forget their relationship to the society and culture about which they report. Beyond the expected restrictions of certain jobs, one wonders whether the conditions that lie below the surface make, in Robinson's case, earning $210,000 a year a cultural straitjacket.
And while white women don't have the dual culture question to contend with, some run smack into the "acceptable standards" question in a male-dominated business. I know women who have been encouraged to wear a turtleneck when they have wrinkles in their necks. There is a not-so-subtle turnaround going on. How else to explain the blatancy of WRC-TV (Channel 4) in adding three white male news and feature anchors to its weeknight news, bringing that station to a total of four male anchors? The bottom line is that the viewer gets the feeling of a certain packaged homogeneity here. If the validity of the pluralistic culture isn't represented, what we see on our tube is a skewed view of America. If we must totally check our cultural and historical identities at the doors of our workplace, how much do we really bring to these workplaces?
It's just not acceptable when an employer's code forces its employes to behave in a certain way because that closes off communication and suppresses the cultural identity of one group. And while management has a certain Nielsen-like validity to its concerns, there's a lot of weight on the other side, too.