Warren Wilson Overcame

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

It isn’t a coincidence that reporter Warren Wilson chose to retire this month after 21 years with KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, just as the Michael Jackson trial was coming to an end. It wasn’t that he was covering the trial. It’s that to Mr. Wilson, an award-winning, pioneering reporter who has specialized in hard news, much of the television coverage of the pop singer’s trial typified the kind of superficial reporting that he laments has become the norm in broadcast TV.

“The fanfare at the Michael Jackson trial was the ultimate insult,” Mr. Wilson said last week from his home in Palmdale, Calif. “We saw reporting when there was nothing to report on. They’d make up stuff. They would speculate. They were so desperate they’d go to these prognosticators, these experts. My question was ‘Why have a reporter there if what we’re going to hear is these experts in a rap, if you will?’ They weren’t needed if the reporter was doing his job. The news wasn’t outside the courtroom. The news was in the courtroom.”

It embitters Mr. Wilson because he did the legwork as a reporter, often under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and now he feels the standards of the profession that has been his life have been lowered. Television news has become “more and more empty, less challenging, less gratifying,” Mr. Wilson said. “And it affected the way I looked at my profession, the one thing that was worth something in my life.”

His anger about the state of TV news isn’t aimed just at the station where he worked but rather at the whole system. He believes the kind of independent reporting he values began to crumble in the 1980s, when on both the national and local levels official sources were replaced by public relations “handlers” who manipulated and spun the news into bites that were spoon-fed to the media. That coincided with an era in which news departments became more closely controlled by owners and managers whose primary interest was making money, not serving the public interest.

“What happened was the people who were in management at the various stations didn’t have the hard-news background,” Mr. Wilson said. “They wanted a soft-news approach. That’s what they wanted on the air. If you did a hard-news story, it went into the editing bay, where they would cut away. They’d shave that hard, probative stuff and just let what was left over go on the air. And the quality just deteriorated and kept deteriorating.”

Mr. Wilson has had to surmount too many obstacles to just go with the flow. He often would interview victims and witnesses himself before going to the authorities, so that law enforcement couldn’t spin him. He even took all the courses for a law degree at night and on weekends so he would better understand the system.

He admits his feelings about the news business in recent years made him “sort of an outcast” because he “didn’t go along with what everybody else was reporting, especially when I knew [other reporters] didn’t check anything beyond what they were handed on a platter. And I think our business suffers because of it.”

Mr. Wilson knows what it feels like to be an outcast. As one of the first African Americans to break into TV news, he has had to overcome a great deal. He was one of nine children born to sharecroppers in North Carolina. His father was crippled by members of the Ku Klux Klan, but his parents always pushed him to get an education, even at second-rate segregated schools. After high school, Mr. Wilson enlisted in the Navy and educated himself enough to fulfill a boyhood dream to be a journalist.

Despite his accomplishments, upon his discharge he faced racism. It was the early 1950s and the Los Angeles Times, among others, didn’t have any black reporters and, as he learned, did not want any.

He worked as a laborer in a warehouse until he found a job in public relations for Los Angeles County. There he met the late Joseph Quinn, founder of City News Service, a wire service in Southern California, who gave him a chance to be a reporter. He worked for CNS and later several radio stations. His work included on-the-scene coverage of the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and brought him to the attention of KNBC-TV.

In the mid-’80s he moved to KTLA as a reporter. He was one of the first to interview Rodney King after his videotaped beating by police. He covered a wide array of crime stories, including a wild gun battle following a robbery in North Hollywood in 1997. He won Emmys, including one for reporting on teen prostitution, and numerous other awards. And he covered the O.J. Simpson trial, where he laments he saw the same kind of shallow reporting that occurred during the Michael Jackson trial.

“In both of those trials I predicted the outcomes before they happened because I knew the jury was hearing something different than journalists were reporting outside the courtroom,” Mr. Wilson said. “The public was led to believe, ‘Gee, this guy is going to be guilty.’ Then the verdict is different from what they expect, so they thought something was wrong.”

Mr. Wilson is most famous for the 22 times during his career that fugitives chose to surrender to him and not the authorities, so he could walk them in and make sure they were treated fairly. Why did they choose him? “I asked them and I asked their families,” Mr. Wilson said, “and in each case, without exception, they said it was because they had seen my reports. ‘We trust you,’ they said. And they couldn’t trust the police. They couldn’t trust the FBI. They couldn’t trust other reporters. So they called me.”

A year ago Mr. Wilson filed a discrimination complaint against KTLA for failing to promote him to anchor or other higher positions. He declined to talk about the complaint, saying he will write about the case in a book now that he has retired. He also wants to write screenplays based on the crimes and trials he covered.

Mr. Wilson’s advice to the next generation is the same as he got as a child: “My father was run down and left for dead in a ditch by KKK members when he was only 19 years old. … But he survived … Until he died, he always told me, ‘Listen, if they knock you down, don’t stay down. Get up. Step up. Go forward. If they knock you down again, do the same thing. Because if you don’t get up you are going to live in the gully with them.’ And I’ve used that my whole life.”