Sunday, June 19, 2005

Warren Wilson Retires After 21 Years At KTLA

A distinguished Emmy-winning colleague in the Los Angeles journalistic community, Warren Wilson, has retired after 21 years with KTLA, Channel 5. He was the son of a North Carolina sharecropper, but like Tom Bradley, son of a Texas sharecropper, he rose to become a well known figure in metropolitan Los Angeles.

Wilson, 71, like almost all great television reporters, has a distinctive voice, immediately recognizable as soon as you hear it, and his specialty has been reporting the crime that particularly affects L.A.'s south and east sides, although he also covered such stories as the North Hollywood bank robbery and shootout.

He didn't sensationalize. He didn't have to. The stories he told on the air were mostly grim and pitiless. But Wilson stayed calm, and he told what had happened in spare, eloquent language. Those who covered the stories from other media always knew that Wilson would be responsible and honest. Covering the 1992 riots shortly after suffering a heart attack, he and his team won a Peabody Award.

Indeed, Wilson was so respected as an honest broker between the police and the community that 22 persons wanted by the police chose him to be an intermediary at their surrender. They knew that with Warren around there was no chance the sometimes triggerhappy cops would start shooting before the surrender could be effected.

Wilson wasn't always satisfied with his career. He felt that as a black reporter, he sometimes wasn't accorded the respect by his superiors that he was certain his talents deserved.

And who's to say he wasn't right? For a long time, Wilson once told me, he wasn't encouraged to speak spontaneously on the air. Nearly everything he said had to be scripted in advance before the filming began. Then, one day, it was a breaking news story. He had to be spontaneous, and he did a hell of a good job. Then, his editors realized that Wilson was good on his feet, and a load was lifted from his mind.

This is not an untypical story, because the truth of it is that "minority reporters" at both the Times and on L.A. radio and television are indeed too often treated differently. They are stereotyped and perhaps kept from the promotions they deserve.

But the stories Wilson handled at KTLA were as well handled as anyone could possibly do. He was, in a way, the voice of a thoroughly dispossessed community, the Los Angeles of street shootings, carjackings and depressing crimes against the very young and helpless. All the rest of us quickly found out that he did know what he was doing and he was a master at doing it.

The Times story about his retirement, by Merrill Balassone, told how Los Angeles once was: "At his first job interview for a reporting position at KNXT (now KCBS), Wilson says the news director turned him down, claiming that the lighting and cameras wouldn't facilitate a black man interviewing a white person on television."

That's the kind of thing journalists of color had to overcome. We can't forget either that when the Watts Riot erupted in the city in 1965, the L.A. Times had to use an advertising salesman, Robert Richardson, to help cover it, because the Times had no black reporter, and that when Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Los Angeles on his first visit, the only white person in the greeting party was the late County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

Of his 1992 Riot coverage, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke declared, "He was right out there in the center of things, asking why things were happening, why there was so much destruction. He was willing to be on the street, letting people know what was happening in their community."

I hope Warren Wilson was given a gala party as a retirement event at KTLA. He deeerved it.


Blogger shelly sloan said...

Ken, I make typo's all the time; never seen you commit this error. Too bad you can't blame it on th etypesetter.

Good post about Warren Wilson; he dererves the kudos.

6/20/2005 8:11 AM  
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