22 Slices
Medium 9781936227068

9. Dreams Deferred

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I can truthfully say that my first television appearances drew nothing but positive reviews; but in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll also say that the shows drew only one review. A Richmond Independent newspaper columnist, who watched me host a production of The Miss Bronze Showcase on KTVU, wrote that somebody should find someplace for me on television. In a burst of naive optimism, I bought up copies of that column and mailed it off to every TV station in the San Francisco Bay Area, daring to dream that someone would take the hint and hire me. I don’t know what I was thinking—to my knowledge there was not a solitary black woman in TV news.

But in the early 1960s, the aspirations of African Americans were taking flight like never before. We were inspired by a Baptist minister from Georgia with a firm faith in nonviolence and a devotion to equality. He had held aloft his own dream that someday all God’s children “will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.’”

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11. His-and-Hers Gas Masks

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

I went to war in 1967, 1968, and 1969. I didn’t go overseas, and I didn’t engage in combat. Instead I went to Oakland and Berkeley, reporting on the bitter, often brutal clashes between authorities who held power and the counterculture that challenged them—whether over the Vietnam War, the draft, ethnic studies, or a 270-by-450-foot plot of University of California land dubbed “People’s Park.”

Often my days would begin at 4:00 a.m., my alarm clock blaring like a trumpet hailing Judgment Day. I would dress quickly, slipping into comfortable shoes, because I was certain to be on my feet all day, come rain or shine. Bill—working first as a freelance photographer for news outlets including the Associated Press and then as a cameraman for KTVU— would drive. Together we would make our way from the flatlands of El Cerrito to the scheduled scene of the day’s showdown. Anything could happen, and often did. Whatever fear we felt was alloyed with thrill: The Bay Area seemed like ground zero in a generational battle for the soul of the country.

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14. A Woman's Touch

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

Television still was very much a boy’s club at the dawn of the 1970s. Network and local TV executives were virtually all male. Three-quarters of the characters on prime time dramas were men. And males held more than 85 percent of on-air news jobs.

Frankly, the guys calling the shots had trouble figuring out what to do with women: NBC censors ruled that I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden’s midriff costume could never reveal her navel; CBS executives insisted that newswoman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show could not be divorced; and at least thirty TV stations dropped the sitcom Maude when its lead character had an abortion.

Nor did TV news tend to tackle serious subjects that were considered “women’s issues.” Childcare, health, education, reproductive rights, and other topics of pressing concern to women probably would have been rejected as unworthy of much coverage in a serious newscast, had women been enough of a force in the newsroom to suggest them.

“Other institutions push envelopes,” Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson once keenly observed. “Television licks the envelope only when it’s safe to do so.”

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18. Going Global

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

In the world of television news, nothing is more tantalizing than the big “get”—an interview with a source that everyone else wants but only you have. In 1977, few “gets” were as elusive or desirable as Fidel Castro. Cuba’s enigmatic communist dictator was the archenemy of the United States—in fact, the CIA had been out to “get” Castro as well, secretly targeting him in hundreds of assassination plots that contemplated everything from an exploding cigar to a fungus-tainted scuba-diving suit. Demonized by the right and romanticized by the left, the cigar-chomping guerrilla was based only ninety miles off our shores.

And he hadn’t given a TV journalist an interview in sixteen years.

I can’t say I had any aspirations to land Castro—to do so seemed beyond the wildest of possibilities. After all, I worked as a junior reporter at a local station on the West Coast; I spoke no Spanish; I never had covered any overseas story; and I was well aware that only a network’s chief foreign correspondent or primetime anchor could ever hope to garner such a coveted assignment. But at a social gathering in the East Bay, I was chatting with Barbara Lee, who would eventually be elected to Congress herself but in those days was an aide to then representative Ron Dellums.

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19. Special Reports

Belva Davis Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

• • •

In the beginning, almost no one noticed the ominous oddity. But in the early 1980s the clues were laced through San Francisco’s obituary pages, where week after week reports told of young men dying of pneumonia, skin cancer, or a vague “prolonged illness.” These men were seldom survived by spouses or children. Many of them called the city’s Castro District home.

My friend Randy Shilts was the first to draw my attention to an unnamed plague surreptitiously sweeping through the gay community. The two of us had worked at PBS station KQED—in fact, I anchored the election season panel there at which conservative state senator John Briggs publicly “outed” Randy, scorning his questions by declaring he expected as much from “a homosexual like you.” We fumbled our way through the rest of the newscast without addressing the subject again, but the minute we were off the air, Randy, who talked in rapid-fire spurts, uncorked a barrage against Briggs. Most of the rest of us didn’t know quite what was appropriate to say.

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