Max Robinson (May 1, 1939 – December 20, 1988) was an American broadcast journalist, and ABC News World News Tonight co-anchor. He was the first African American broadcast network news anchor in the United States and one of the first television journalists to die of AIDS. He was a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Robinson was born to Maxie and Doris Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, and went on to attend Oberlin College where he was freshman class president. Briefly served in United States Air Force and was assigned to Russian Language School at Indiana University before receiving a medical discharge. He began working in radio early-on, including a short time at WSSV-AM in Petersburg, Virginia, where he called himself “Max The Player”, and later at WANT-AM, Richmond.
Robinson began his television career in 1959, when he was hired for a news job at WTOV-TV in Portsmouth, Virginia. He had to read the news while hidden behind a slide of the station’s logo. One night, Robinson had the slide removed, and was fired the next day. He later went to Washington, D.C. based WRC-TV, and stayed for three years, winning six journalism awards for coverage of civil rights events such as the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1969, Robinson joined the Eyewitness News team at WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) in Washington, D.C. He was teamed with anchor Gordon Peterson, and the newscast took off. During that time, he was so well liked by viewers, that when Hanafi Muslims took hostages at the B’nai B’rith building in Washington, they would only speak with Robinson.
Career Robinson began his television career in 1959, at the age of 20, having being able to compete against four white applicants during that time period when African American representation on television was a rarity. He was hired for that news job at WTOV-TV in Portsmouth, Virginia. He had to read the news while hidden behind a slide of the station’s logo. One night, Robinson had the slide removed, and was fired the next day.
When Robinson later moved to Washington, he became the first African-American anchor on a local television news program on WTOP-TV Channel 9 in 1969, and the first African-American anchor on a network television news program. During his three and a half years at WRC, he won six journalism awards for his coverage of major events such as the 1968 riots after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the antiwar demonstrations, and the national election. It was during this time that Robinson won two regional Emmys for a documentary he did on black life in Anacostia titled The Other Washington In 1969, Robinson joined the Eyewitness News team at WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) in Washington, D.C. At WTOP-TV, he was teamed with Gordon Peterson for the 6:00 PM and the 11:00 PM newscasts and the rest was history. There was such a rapport between Robinson and his viewers that when Hanafi Muslims took hostages at the Washington Mosque, they asked to only speak with him. In 1978, when Roone Arledge was looking to revamp ABC News’ nightly news broadcast into World News Tonight, he remembered Max Robinson from a 60 Minutes interview, and hired him to be a part of his new three-anchor format: Frank Reynolds in Washington, Peter Jennings in London, and Robinson in Chicago. Max Robinson became the first black man to anchor a nightly network news broadcast. Almost immediately, Robinson took it upon himself to fight racism at every turn and at whatever cost he thought necessary. He was constantly embroiled with his network bosses over the way news stories portrayed black America and how they neglected to reflect the black viewpoint. Robinson’s integrity as a journalist and his role as a leader in the fight against prejudice made him a mentor to many young black television journalists.
ABC News and World News Tonight
Robinson was tapped by Roone Arledge to become the Chicago-based co-anchor of ABC World News Tonight in 1978 after Arledge saw Robinson in a documentary on CBS’ 60 Minutes. He served in that position until 1983, when ABC named London-based World News Tonight co-anchor Peter Jennings the sole anchor following the death of Washington-based WNT co-anchor Frank Reynolds.
Robinson’s ABC tenure was marked by conflicts between himself and the management of ABC News over viewpoints and the portrayal of Black America in the news. In addition, he was known by his co-workers to show up late for work or sometimes not show up at all, along with his moods, and his use of alcohol escalated. In addition, Robinson was known to fight racism at any turn and often felt unworthy of the admiration he received and was not pleased with what he had accomplished. Together with Bob Strickland, Robinson established a program for mentoring young black broadcast journalists.
During most of Robinson’s tenure, ABC News used the Westar satellite to feed Robinson’s segment of WNT from Chicago to New York. TVRO receiver earth stations were also coming into use at the time, and anyone who knew where to find the satellite feeds could view the feed. On the live feed, Robinson could be seen to have a drink or two, but never during the actual aired segment, which led some bars around the country to even have drink specials during the nearly 90 minutes, and inviting patrons to come in and see the “Max ‘R'” feed. ABC eventually caught on to what was happening, and even resorted to hide what was going on by pasting a slide with the words “ABC News Chicago” on the screen during the live feed during times that Robinson was not live over the actual WNT broadcast. In addition, Robinson could often be seen being harsh towards those who worked around him during the live feed.
By the time Robinson departed ABC News to become the first black anchor at WMAQ-TV, Chicago in 1984, he had been relegated to the weekend news and news briefs. He left WMAQ in 1985.
Max Robinson was married three times. Two ended in divorce, one in annulment. His first marriage was to Eleanor Booker and they had three children: Mark, Maureen and Michael. His final marriage was to Beverly Hamilton, with whom he had another son, Malik.
Robinson was found to have AIDS while he was hospitalized for pneumonia in Illinois, but he kept it a secret. In the fall of 1988, Robinson was in Washington to deliver a speech at Howard University‘s School of Communications when he became increasingly ill. Robinson checked himself into Howard University Hospital, where he died of complications due to AIDS on December 20, 1988. Robinson denied being gay or bisexual. At his service, he was eulogized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He was a brother to Randall Robinson.