Max Robinson, 49, a gifted and talented television newsman whose career took him to the highest levels of his profession, but then collapsed in a morass of professional and personal crises, died yesterday at Howard University Hospital. He had AIDS.
Robinson became the first black newsman to anchor a network television news program when he was named in 1978 as one of three coanchors of ABC-TV's "World News Tonight," operating out of Chicago. In 1969, he had been the first black to anchor a local TV news program in Washington when he was named coanchor of Channel 9's midday news program. From 1971 until he was hired by ABC, Robinson and Gordon Peterson were coanchors of WTOP Channel 9's evening news programs at 6 and 11 p.m.
He was one of the city's premier media personalities when he left the nation's capital for the anchorman's job in Chicago, and the D.C. Council declared a Max Robinson Day when he left. Channel 9 incorporated a documentary on his life into its evening broadcast.
Robinson had been ill with AIDS for about a year, a family friend and spokesman, Roger Wilkins said, and in the last months of his life, "had achieved an extraordinary degree of serenity."
"During his battle with the disease, Mr. Robinson expressed the desire that his death be the occasion for emphasizing the importance, particularly to the black community, of education about AIDS and methods for its prevention. More generally he hoped that people would recognize the urgency of developing effective treatments of the disease and more humane policies towards its victims," Wilkins said in a statement issued on behalf of the family.
Before his death, Robinson had declined to discuss the nature of his illness with the media.
At the time of his departure for Chicago, Channel 9's evening news had come to dominate the rating charts, and Robinson's name was virtually a household word in many homes throughout the metropolitan Washington area. He was well-connected on the streets and in the official centers of power, and his years in Washington may, in fact, have been the most productive and successful of his career.
He was the first to broadcast a conversation with Hanafi Muslim leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis in the 1977 Hanafi hostage takings at three downtown Washington buildings, and his coverage of that event attracted the attention of network executives and helped lead to the ABC offer.
By then Robinson had been a television journalist here for 12 years, and his performance had been impressive virtually from the start. He won a national Emmy award in 1966 for a documentary series on life in Anacostia.
On camera, Robinson had a quiet, authoritative delivery, a deep resonant voice and a serious demeanor that inspired trust and confidence in his viewers. He was gregarious and he looked like a television anchorman.
But he also had a down side, and it was said by colleagues in the business that he was sometimes his own worst enemy. He could be temperamental and moody, his work habits were sometimes erratic and he drank too much.
"I think one of my basic flaws has been a lack of esteem . . . always feeling like I had to do more," Robinson told The Washington Post in May. "I never could do enough or be good enough. And that was the real problem."
As ABC's coanchor in Chicago, with Frank Reynolds in Washington and Peter Jennings in London, Robinson was thrust into one of network television's most high pressure and visible assignments, and in that period he was arguably the best-known black journalist in the United States.
He covered the 1980 political conventions, the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in Pennsylvania and the 1982 floods in Fort Wayne, Ind. But he was not altogether happy with his assignments, and the ABC executives were not altogether happy with him.
"I think there was a tendency early on to characterize Max as 'this is what he does -- he's effective on camera, he's a good reader but he's not the kind of fireman reporter you can put on a plane and fly to Kansas City when the Hyatt Regency collapses,' " ABC News President Roone Arledge said in the May article.
But Vernon Jarrett, a veteran columnist for the Chicago Tribune, argued that there were also some in the business who wanted Robinson to fail as the first black anchorman. "They picked on Max all the time he was here," Jarrett said. "Max looked like he belonged at the top . . . without any question. It was all right for him to succeed as a tertiary guy, but they did not want him as the man in charge."
As he anchored "World News Tonight" from Chicago, Robinson was also a professional mentor to many young black television journalists, but he drew the wrath of his superiors at ABC with a stinging 1981 speech on racism in television delivered at Smith College.
Two years later, in July 1983, Robinson infuriated ABC executives again when he missed coanchor Reynolds' funeral in Washington. He had been scheduled to sit next to First Lady Nancy Reagan at the televised service. But the night before, according to an ABC producer, Robinson had several drinks at home in Chicago, taken some prescribed medication and then passed out. He did not answer his door the next day when a network car arrived to take him to the airport.
Shortly thereafter, Peter Jennings became the sole anchor of "World News Tonight," and Robinson was transferred back to Washington to do weekday evening news briefs and anchor the late night news show on Saturday. In 1984 he returned to Chicago as a local evening news coanchor, but he left that job in 1985 and had not worked regularly in television since.
A native of Richmond, where he attended segregated public schools, Robinson attended Oberlin College and Virginia Union University. He served in the Air Force and studied Russian in an Air Force language program at Indiana University.
He was a disc jockey at a Richmond radio station, then worked for a time reading news wires at a now defunct low-power television station in Portsmouth. He read behind a graphic on screen that said simply "News." One day he asked a cameraman to remove the graphic, and the next day he was fired after viewers complained that the station had a black newscaster.
In 1965, Robinson moved to Washington, covered fires, robberies and murders for Channel 9, then in 1966 was hired away by Channel 4 (WRC) where he became that station's first black reporter. He won six journalism awards while at Channel 4 where he impressed the station's management with his poise, looks and voice. But he returned to Channel 9 -- and an eventual job as anchor after he failed to win such a position at Channel 4.
His years as a television journalist here coincided with major news events in the city's history. These included the 1968 riots after the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr., the antiwar demonstrations of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the creation of a newly elected government for Washington.
He was in the news himself in 1973 when he was arrested for illegally discharging a firearm into the terrace of his apartment at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW in the early morning hours. He forfeited a $25 collateral and was released. Police said later he was distraught over the death of his father, Maxie Robinson, three weeks earlier.
The following night Robinson said on his news broadcast, "Even a newsman gets out of joint once in a while. I am the same Max Robinson you have always known except today I'm just a little bit wiser."
His marriages to the former Eleanor Booker and Beverly Hamilton ended in divorce.
Survivors include three children by his first marriage, Mark Robinson of Washington, and Maureen and Michael Robinson, both of Richmond; a son by his second marriage, Malik Robinson of Chicago; his mother and stepfather, Doris Robinson Griffin and the Rev. James Griffin, both of Norfolk; two sisters, Jewell Robinson Shepperd and Jean Robinson Yancy, and a brother, Randall Robinson, all of Washington.