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Remembering Carl Stokes, a TV news and political pioneer

Carl B. Stokes, with his wife, Shirley, makes

Carl B. Stokes, with his wife, Shirley, makes a victory statement at his campaign headquarters in Cleveland, Oct. 3, 1967, after returns indicated he had won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Cleveland. Credit: Associated Press

With launch day approaching, Carl Stokes wondered what he'd gotten himself into. Confiding to a writer for New York Magazine, he said "I'm going to need all the help I can get."

Soon to be a pioneering anchor for WNBC/4, Stokes had been a two-term mayor in Cleveland — the first Black mayor of a major American city. In Cleveland, he'd fought with the unions, the police, the voters, the media, and most famously, the Cuyahoga River, which was so polluted, went the joke, that if someone fell in, they'd dissolve before drowning.

How much worse could New York TV news be? He was about to find out.

Stokes had been named co-anchor of WNBC/4's 6 p.m. news in the spring of 1972 — the first African American anchor of a weeknight news broadcast in New York — and the blowback was immediate. A former mayor shouldn't be an anchor, the critics charged. The most prominent of them, John Chancellor, anchor of "Nightly News," went public with his disapproval.

Meanwhile, during practice runs at the 30 Rock studio, Stokes had struggled with reading news copy and the camera angles. He was uncomfortable at the anchor desk.

Like any TV newbie, he needed time to learn the tricks of a new trade, and when the May 15 launch day finally arrived, it looked like he'd get that. The day started off quiet and even the preshow rehearsals with his co-anchor, Paul Udell — a recent import from Los Angeles TV — went off without a hitch for a change.

Then, around 4 p.m., the first bulletin crossed the wires. George Wallace, the former Alabama governor, running for president, had been shot five times at a shopping center in Maryland. With less than two hours to launch, the newbie was thrown into the maelstrom, the results predictable.

Stokes' much-promoted opener — "finally [an anchor team] to clean up New York's garbage!" — was a fiasco. He boomed out his first words, like a longshoreman hailing a tug. He and Udell would later apologize for the inaugural flop, but by then those second thoughts turned into a premonition. What HAD he gotten himself into?

In 2021, there are African American anchors and reporters throughout television news — Lester Holt, anchor of "Nightly," is the direct beneficiary of Stokes' legacy — but when Stokes started, there were hardly any.

In fact, change had finally come by 1972, but it was glacial. In exploring the root cause of the 1967 riots, President Johnson's Kerner Commission had singled out the media which "report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world." At its prodding, local TV cautiously started to hire Black reporters.

In New York, Bob Teague, Melba Tolliver, Norma Quarles and Gil Noble — in fact the first Black anchor on New York TV, when WABC/7 put him on the weekend telecasts in 1968 — were some of the earliest pioneers.

Stokes, however, was to be the game changer. Internationally famous, he was the mayor who fixed the so-called "Mistake on the Lake." He had been on the cover of Time. Not merely a celebrity hire for Ch. 4, Stokes was the symbolic one, and race was implicit in the symbol.

"I like to say that my uncle was a jack of all trades and a master of them all," said Lori Stokes, co-host of WNYW/5's "Good Day New York," in a recent interview, when asked to assess his legacy. (Her father, Louis Stokes, served 15 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.)

"But before there was Bernie Shaw [at CNN] or Max Robinson [at ABC] or other Black TV male journalists, there was Carl Stokes, and that's how he led his whole life. He was always paving the way for others."

Stokes survived that first day and would remain with Ch. 4 the next eight years, returning to Cleveland in 1980. Collegial and well-liked, he would win an Emmy and earn a reputation as one of New York TV's best reporters on the so-called "urban" beat over those years.

But interviews with family and colleagues also reveal that his tenure was rocky while its final act explosive.

"When you go from politician [to] the newsroom, it's not the same," says Cordell Stokes, Stokes' youngest son and a Cleveland-based corporate consultant. "You have to convey the outcome [of a story], and be on-point. That's what the business is [and] obviously it didn't work out [for him]. There were problems from the top down."

Stokes' rise and fall as a Ch. 4 pioneer is now mostly forgotten, but his rise and fall as two-term Cleveland mayor, from 1967 to 1971, is part of the country's history — an important part.

His father, Charles, died when Stokes was two, and his mother Louise worked as a "domestic" to keep the family from starving. "The poor American boy's story is the starting point of the American Dream," Stokes wrote in his autobiography, "Promises of Power," published shortly after joining Ch. 4. "The poor American Black boy's story is no dream, believe me, but it does contain one."

Stokes' dream was complicated, long in coming. He dropped out of high school, kicked around Cleveland, became a first-rate boxer (he was later a college middleweight champ) and first rate Ping-Pong and pool player too. He was tough, and beat up other kids — usually white ones, he later wrote, "for practice."

He joined the Army in 1945 "just to get the hell out," and was shipped to Alabama, where he experienced Jim Crow first hand. It was there he developed a "clean-edged unadulterated hatred for whites," he would later write.

For his next act Stokes worked to un-develop that. He finished high school, then college (West Virginia State) and got a job as a liquor enforcement agent. It was dangerous work (he shot a pair of bootleggers), also a dead end. He went on to get a law degree which was "about as negotiable as Confederate money" for a Black man in those days, he recalled.

Stokes then returned to Cleveland, and his destiny. In the '67 mayoral race, Stokes ran against the grandson of former President William Howard Taft, and won — a huge upset in the majority-white city.

As mayor he had a long list of successes — including the cleanup of the Cuyahoga — but one tragedy in 1968 would haunt him. After a gun battle between police and so-called "Black Nationalists of New Libya" that left three cops dead, Stokes pulled white police officers off the streets to calm the rioters. Stokes would later win reelection, but the Cleveland Police Department never forgave him.

By 1971, Cleveland was done with Stokes and he was done with Cleveland. Most urgently, this soon-to-be-divorced father of three needed a job. That's when he got the call came from Ch. 4's station manager, Art Watson.

Watson had earlier run NBC's Cleveland station and knew that the former mayor was a first-rate communicator. Maybe he could be an anchor too?

Ch. 4 and Watson were badly pressed. Only 659,000 viewers were watching the 6 p.m. news, or about a third the audience of Ch. 7's, which had been rebranded "Eyewitness News." Watson had hired a top Ch. 7 producer, Norm Fein, whose first order of business was to fix the hole at 6.

In an interview, Fein — who would go on to become a founding producer of News 12 — said "he seemed to be an excellent communicator and we were revising the staff. It seemed like a good opportunity to get someone who would be a good anchorman [too.]"

But Murphy's law commenced almost immediately. Chancellor, who had been pressuring Ch. 4 to get him a better lead-in for "Nightly" (which then began at 7 p.m.), ran into Stokes at Charlie O's on West 45th a few weeks before the May 15 launch. "Where can I run for mayor," he snapped, then added: "I'm going to needle you until you turn blue."

Chancellor later confirmed to New York Magazine that he "had led the opposition at NBC News" against hiring Stokes.

Next, Gabe Pressman, Ch. 4's veteran political reporter fired off a letter to management and local beat writers, saying that the new two-man anchor team was a gimmick which would damage hard news reporting.

Reuven Frank, NBC News president in charge of all TV news coverage at the network, then fired off a letter of his own: "NBC News," he wrote, is still committed to the ‘hard news coverage’ [and] the latitude we gave you — including your own program, your own staff, and (forgive me) your own chauffeur — attests to that commitment. Because we share your belief that investigative reporting is vital to television journalism, we hoped to see more of it from you than we did."

Pressman promptly quit and went to Ch. 5 (As a parting shot, the network later leaked that he was about to be demoted anyway. Pressman would later finish his legendary career back at Ch. 4.)

Meanwhile, Stokes continued to struggle and worse, so did the ratings. By 1974, his pioneering run as anchor was over, and a new anchor for a new program had arrived — Chuck Scarborough. Stokes was demoted to reporter and named host of a regular segment called "Urban Report."

In an email, Scarborough called Stokes a "dynamic … colleague with an extraordinary life story [and] I learned a great deal from him during the six years we worked together." Of that early blowback, Scarborough had this to say: "These days we have become accustomed to political figures moving into the news industry and achieving great success. Think of Tim Russert, Joe Scarborough, Nicolle Wallace and George Stephanopoulos. But it was Carl who opened the door for them to make that jump."

Nevertheless, Stokes' son now says that was hardly the kind of trail he had expected to blaze. When he was "reassigned to be a street reporter, it wasn't what he wanted to do … It became a job as opposed to a career."

Often with his youngest son tagging along, Stokes spent the next six years chasing stories. He bagged some big ones, too, including one about a play starring James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson. Black leaders said the play soft-pedaled Robeson's life, but when Stokes found most of them hadn't even seen it, they backed down. Cordell later saw Jones backstage and asked him "to do the Darth Vader voice." He did.

Cordell was also at 30 Rock when the end came suddenly in 1980. He doesn't remember the details, but he does remember the yelling. According to later accounts, Stokes was infuriated when he learned he had been passed over for a key assignment at the 1980 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. Stokes quit that day and headed back to Cleveland, where he'd later become a municipal judge.

But in a later, revised edition of his memoir, Stokes got his revenge. "Black viewers did tune in that first month [in 1972] to see the new Black anchor," he wrote, "but once they saw he was just a different face in the same old tired program format, their racial duty done, they turned back to the other stations."

He then called out "the white reporters [who] resented this new 'affirmative action' by NBC," but singled out Chancellor. Recalling the long-ago night at Charlie O's, he wrote that "Chancellor, obviously intoxicated, turned from the bar and slurred, '[expletive] politician can't be a newsman … If you weren't colored, you'd be back in Cleveland, trying to get elected dogcatcher, you S.O.B.''"

Stokes wrote, "I swallowed hard and fought down a desire to alter his face [but instead] accepted the challenge of being an anchor person with no prior experience … With hard work, if others could do it, I could too."

Many years later, when he was ambassador to the Seychelles, Stokes was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and died April 3, 1996. He was 68. Chancellor — long gone from "Nightly," also suffering from terminal stomach cancer — died that July. He too was 68. Cordell doesn't know if the two ever spoke again after that first encounter.

Lori Stokes had this to say about her uncle: "He had to take the knocks, just like every other person who paves the way. He had to be called names, and was like other pioneers who had to prove themselves 10 times more than the person next to them."

"But when they do, they know they've carved out that space, so the next person doesn't have to go through all that they did."

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