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NABJ Hall of Fame Honors Early Role Models

Two broadcast pioneers are among the four journalists entering the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame this year. Former Turner Broadcasting executive and Trumpet Awards founder Xernona Clayton and Jim Vance, longtime anchor at WRC-TV in Washington, are being inducted alongside editor Merv Aubespin of the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and John L. Dotson Jr., former president and publisher of the Akron, Ohio, Beacon Journal and co-founder of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

The NABJ began inducting industry stalwarts into its Hall of Fame in 2004. NABJ President Bryan Monroe said only four journalists are inducted each year, and this year the organization had well over a dozen nominees.

"We have a committee made up of some folks who've already been inducted to the Hall of Fame, and they help select the next group of folks coming in. They make recommendations to the board, which ultimately makes the decision," Mr. Monroe said, underscoring the importance of understanding the history of black journalists and their achievements.

In the early days of television, black journalists had few, if any, role models or mentors to pave their way. In 1967, as host of "The Xernona Clayton Show" on WAGA-TV in Atlanta, Ms. Clayton became the first black person in the South to have her own television show.

"I didn't have examples," Ms. Clayton said. "When I went on television I thought of myself as being Loretta Young coming through the door wearing pretty clothes and saying, 'Good evening, everybody.'"

Ms. Clayton is amazed at the difference her being on TV made back then. "The general manager of my station said at that time he'd been in business 22 years and they'd never had the kind of response that they'd gotten from my presence on the air," she said. "We'd made friends with white people who wrote me letters saying they wanted to be my friend, they wanted to invite me to their homes for dinner. That had never happened before."

An unexpected friend Ms. Clayton made was the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. "When he got ready to denounce the organization [in 1968], he credited me with changing his negative attitude. So with those kinds of things along your way, you don't need much mentoring. You just do it and know that within your spirit you can be optimistic and things will change. Things will get better and you can help make them get better."

When NABJ started in 1975, part of its mission was to ensure black journalists would see they had role models. "The need for it was critical at the time, just as much as it's important in the lives of young minority journalists today," said Mr. Vance, who has seen a number of journalists come through WRC-TV in recent years as a result of their involvement with NABJ.

"I cut my teeth and was taught by people for whom broadcast journalism was almost holy," he said. "We learned to abide by certain standards and live by certain guidelines in an environment and climate that nurtured our commitment. But much has changed."

He's talking not only about today's bottom-line mentality, but also about the tools journalists have at their disposal. On the technological side, he said, quality is better, but information comes faster -- sometimes too fast, as during last year's Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, when errant and unconfirmed reports were broadcast.

"I hope people will appreciate the fact that journalism can be a wonderful thing and it can be an awful thing at the same time. It has the potential to go both ways," Mr. Vance said. "I hope and pray that some of the basic tenets of good journalism as I understand them will not alter. But I'm a little worried about that, because I've noticed a lot of people are calling themselves journalists now and I'm not sure whence their credentials came. A blog is not necessarily journalism. It can be, but it's not journalism just because you put your name out there and say, 'Here I am.'"

Change also has come from above, if Ms. Clayton's 31-year tenure at Turner Broadcasting is any indication. As the only woman and the only black person in her work environment for much of her career, Ms. Clayton learned to speak up despite the risk of being branded as a complainer or as someone who is difficult to work with.

As the highest-ranking African American at Turner Broadcasting, Ms. Clayton felt it was her duty to speak up for all of the minority employees who couldn't do so. In the late 1980s she was shown a glossy 60-page annual report, but saw only two people of color in its pages. Asked her opinion, she said, "I don't like it at all. With all the black people in the company, people who relate to this company, you could only find a traditional photo of an entertainer and an athlete? Of all the people here who are seriously committed to their tasks to make this a great organization, this is all you come up with? Couldn't you find something more?"

The executive showing her the report said he hadn't even noticed. The following year Ms. Clayton was asked to assist with the report. "Now, had I not spoken, that situation might have repeated itself."

Much like Ms. Clayton's co-worker, Mr. Vance knows what it's like to learn by mistake. In the mid-1970s, prisoners took over the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., for four days. "I got inside on the first night but then I couldn't get out, so I was in there for three more days," Mr. Vance said. "I was being interviewed, through the door, by other journalists who couldn't get in. So I became part of the story. I remember being very uncomfortable about that and making a solemn promise to myself, and to anyone else who cared to listen, that I would never, ever do that again."

Ms. Clayton is optimistic, but realistic, about what the future holds, saying there still aren't enough minority journalists in local and national TV news. "Change isn't going to come about unless we have people like NABJ who can speak up and call attention to the fact that there is an absence," she said. "I think the organization is vital, so important and so necessary. It needs to be focused on calling attention to where the vacuum is."

Both Ms. Clayton and Mr. Vance were surprised to learn they were being inducted into the Hall of Fame. One of the last times Mr. Vance saw his college buddy Ed Bradley was when the NABJ gave Mr. Bradley its lifetime achievement award in 2005. The longtime CBS broadcaster died in November 2006. "I couldn't help but think of that when NABJ called [about the induction]," Mr. Vance said. "So it's bittersweet in that regard. But I'm thrilled and can't wait to get there."

Comments (1)

Maureen Jennings:

How do I become involved in your organization?

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