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John Johnson: A Journalist Career

by Renae Rapp on 2023-11-06T00:00:00-05:00 in Archives, History | 0 Comments

John Johnson: A Journalist Career

This blog post was written by RAC-CCNY Summer 2023 intern, Damien Avery. For this blog post, Damien researched through the John Johnson Collection available at the CCNY Archives & Special Collections. 

Early Life/Education

Born in Harlem (1938) and raised in Bed-Stuy, John Johnson is a widely recognized representative of Black New Yorkers. Skilled in visual arts, he graduated from the School of Art and Design in 1956 as school president and member of the National Honor Society, before attending CCNY. Taking full advantage of the unprecedented opportunity within his family, Johnson continued to excel, pursuing art history and earning a master's degree allowing him to begin his career as an educator.

Early Career

After spending six years with the New York Board of Education Johnson accepted a position as Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Lincoln University, continuing to lecture at several other institutions and paint. He then completed his Ph.D. in the Arts on a fellowship at Indiana University.

Johnson joined ABC in 1968 as an associate producer within the network’s documentary program, eventually, taking positions as head producer, director, and writer. In total, Johnson worked on ten documentaries for ABC for which received his Emmys and additional nominations. A documentary of note; "To All The World's Children," capturing the work being done by UNICEF, won several awards including a Christopher Award for Johnson’s direction. The first “African American documentary producer, director and writer at a broadcast network”. Johnson was also one of the first black filmmakers in the Directors Guild of America, cementing his place as a revolutionary figure in history. After extensively traveling across the world for stories, Johnson left the program in 1971, staying local for eyewitness news.

Eyewitness News

Johnson was one of the early pioneers of eyewitness news. He quickly became a trusted pillar of the community, allowing him access and communication between opposing parties, and the frequent position of mediator. In 1997 Johnson was called to church in Harlem wherein a gunman was holding a 15-year-old boy hostage, and after two hours, was able to successfully disarm the gunman. An act of heroism he was promptly commended for.

His work in Eyewitness News continued to earn Johnson awards, being the first newsman to link FALN terrorist activities directly to Cuba, for which his 1977 special report won an Associated Press Broadcasters Association award, also winning an Emmy in 1978 for his live coverage of the Everard Bathhouse fire in New York.

Seasoned, and with respect gained from Attica, and other negotiations, Johnson was made mediator at the prison revolt at the Bergen County Jail Annex in 1981 after inmates called for him directly to act as prime negotiator. With two guards being held hostage, Johnson was able to facilitate a peaceful resolution and hostage release. His position gave him exclusive access to the negotiation and prison conditions, the report for which earned the “Local and National United Press International Award for Outstanding Spot News” in 1981.

Johnson left WABC in the midst of covering the O. J. Simpson murder case in 1994, completing the story at WCBS after accepting a co-anchor position on their 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.

In October 1996, Johnson was fired from WCBS amongst several other notable personalities, overturning an era with abrupt and unfounded dismissals.

Still in high demand, Johnson and his WCBS co-anchor Michele Marsh were hired by WNBC as the station's new noon newscasters. After a year, Johnson left to care for his dying father, deciding he’d reached the end of his journalistic career.

Retirement

"I wanted enough life left so I could paint full time,"

Johnson never imagined a career in journalism and began it with a definite end in mind. After leaving WNBC, he resumed painting full-time. Hundreds of his works have been exhibited in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, and holding a legacy of their right.

His show, "The Human Circus,” was featured at the Walter Wickiser Gallery, and highly praised, his work shifting to smaller scale and more personal depictions. The show itself was inspired by a DNA test he had in 2010, reflecting on the variance of his ethnicity, and shock of German heritage.

Johnson has since donated his personal belongings to CCNY, with his journals, awards, and items of interest viewable in CCNY Archives & Special Collections, as well as an upcoming documentary highlighting his career

Notable Works/Coverage:

  • “Welfare Game”
  • “Strangers in Their Land: The Puerto Ricans”
  • Attica Prison Riots
  • Release of Nelson Mandela
  • Unified Task Force Intervention 
  • O.J Simpson's trial
  • Only Son: A Memoir (2002)

References 

  1. Salamone, Gina. “Ex-Newsman John Johnson’s Art Portrays His Life – as well as Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga” New York Daily News, 10 May 2012, https://www.nydailynews.com/2012/05/10/ex-newsman-john-johnsons-art-portrays-his-life-as-well-as-angelina-jolie-and-lady-gaga/
  2. https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-446-52552-7
  3. Gay, Verne. “What Ever Happened to: John Johnson, Longtime NYC News Reporter.” Newsday, 6 Nov. 2019, www.newsday.com/entertainment/tv/john-johnson-eyewitness-news-wabc-y24193.
  4. Richard Huff and Gentile, Don. “WCBS Sign-off network cancels News Team Bigs.” Wcbs Sign-Off Network Cancels News Team Bigs, 3 Oct. 1996, web.archive.org/web/20110701064053/www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/1996/10/03/1996-10-03_wcbs_sign-off__network_cance.html.


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