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August 23, 2014, 1:16 pm

Noble and Wallace — legendary journalists

 

Two giants of journalism died recently, days apart, leaving a deep void in the coverage of significant stories that speak to the history of a people and the corruption of the system. Gil Noble was the producer/host of the iconic, long-running, award-winning public affairs program “Like It Is,” which aired on the ABC affiliate, WABC-TV, in New York. The weekly program aired 33 years, and covered people, places and events that affected the African-American community, nationally and internationally, and focused on stories often ignored by mainstream media outlets. Gil died on April 5 at the age of 80 from complications of a stroke; his appearances on “Like It Is” ended in 2011.

The other journalist who died was Mike Wallace, the “60 Minutes” firebrand who made most of his subjects uncomfortable with his hard-charging, confrontational interviews. Wallace, 93, died after a long illness. Wallace, the king of ambush interviews, asked the questions others were afraid to bring up and in many cases, received answers that no one expected.

Noble and Wallace became associated with TV programs that would define their careers and legacies in 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a period of student protests against the Vietnam War and political upheaval at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That same year, MLK and RFK were assassinated, LBJ had decided not to seek reelection and Richard M. Nixon, who became known as “Tricky Dick,” would go on to capture the highest office in the land.

Noble got his first media job at WLIB, a Black radio station in Harlem in the early 1960s. A temporary position that was only to last three months, Noble loved his new gig and vowed to learn everything he could in the short time allotted to him by Bill McCreary, the news director. After three months, Noble was retained and from his radio perch came into contact with the Who’s Who of African-American history and culture, including Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Dizzy Gillespie, Errol Garner and members of the Black Panther Party.

One chance meeting resulted in an onscreen career. A white reporter at WABC-TV asked Noble if he would be interested in a job as a TV reporter. Gil answered in the affirmative, was interviewed and given a one-week, on-air audition. His first assignment was covering the Newark riots right after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. His work was so impressive that he was hired as a street reporter and would go on to become a weekend anchor and then the host of “Like It Is.”

“Like It Is” grew out of the Kerner Commission’s Report, a scathing study that concluded that the news media’s lack of diversity directly contributed to its poor coverage of urban rebellions

Gil Noble was a beneficiary of the white-owned media finally holding up a mirror to its face. He became the co-host of “Like It Is” with actor Robert Hooks in 1968. In an interview with Harold Hudson Channer in 1998, Noble said “Like It Is” was the only ABC program produced and conceptualized by people of African descent.

A year later, Hooks left the show to do the TV series, “NYPD,” leaving Noble as the sole host. Just as Mike Wallace became the face of “60 Minutes,” Noble became the face of “Like It Is.” It became the touchstone of the African-American community. His guests included entertainers, politicians, educators, historians and activists who shared their experiences.

Last year, I watched a “Like It Is” that originally aired on June 29, 1969. It was Gil’s interview with Sammy Davis Jr. I confess that really never appreciated the genius of Sammy until I watched that interview. It wasn’t until I heard Davis talk about the racism he experienced as he traveled the Chitlin’ Circuit as a young entertainer and how he was discriminated against one of the Rat Pack with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Joey Bishop in the 1960s, did I truly understand what a trailblazer Sammy was.

Gil gently probed Davis about his marriage to a white woman, May Britt, during the Civil Rights era, his conversion to Judaism, his conked or straightened hairdo and his work with white superstars. Davis shared his journey from a child star to mega success, warts and all, as well as his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. This was riveting TV, and Gil was the skilled guide.

No one will replace Gil Noble as the journalist guide who brought our stories to a wider audience in a medium that was reluctant to give us a stage. His interviews with Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Nelson Mandela and Aretha Franklin, and his documentary on Malcolm X, have given us priceless, first-person historic nuggets that define each of us and our history.

 

Linda Tarrant-Reid is an author, historian and photographer. Her book “Discovering Black America: From the Age of Exploration to the Twenty-First Century” will be published in September. Visit her blog at, www.discoverblackus.com. Send your comments to Linda Tarrant-Reid, c/o The Westchester County Press, P.O. Box 152, White Plains, NY 10602.