Bruce Johnson, one of Cincinnati's first Black TV journalists, dies at 71
This was supposed to be an interview with Bruce Johnson, one of Cincinnati's first Black TV reporters, about his new memoir called Surviving Deep Waters. But Johnson, best known for his four decades as a reporter and anchorman at WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., suffered a fatal heart attack Sunday.
This was supposed to be an interview with Bruce Johnson, one of Cincinnati's first Black TV reporters, who started his career in 1972 under Al Schottelkotte, WCPO-TV's legendary news anchor.
I was looking forward to speaking to Johnson about his new memoir called Surviving Deep Waters, published Feb. 8. The Louisville native devoted an entire chapter to working for Schottelkotte in Channel 9's all-white newsroom in the early 1970s, and another chapter about attending old Sacred Heart Seminary on Beechmont Avenue as a high school freshman and sophomore.
But I can't. Johnson, best known for his four decades as a reporter and anchorman at WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., suffered a fatal heart attack Sunday. He was 71.
WUSA-TV called Johnson "a beloved longtime anchor" who "devoted 44 years of his professional life to telling remarkable stories for WUSA9 from March 16, 1976, through his retirement on Dec. 31, 2020." You can read about his D.C. career here.
Johnson — a drop-out from Kentucky State College (now a university) with no journalism training or typing skills — was hired by Schottelkotte after being fired by WCIN-AM.
"Al saw something in him. He was a good reporter," says Curtis Mitchell, a WKRC-TV director who started at WCPO shortly after Johnson. They've kept in touch over the years.
"He quickly became a hell of a reporter," says Jim Delaney, a former WCPO-TV reporter who mentored Johnson. In his book, Johnson wrote that the "time spent" with Schottelkotte, former assistant news director Allan White, photographer Greg Hahn and veteran reporter Delaney "proved invaluable."
Five weeks ago, Johnson had called and offered to mail me a copy of his new memoir, which detailed his formative years in Cincinnati. I was reading Surviving Deep Waters Sunday night, hours before Mitchell emailed to say that Johnson had died.
I had just finished the part about Johnson being at Channel 9 in 1973 when two Rembrandt paintings were stolen from the Taft Museum Downtown, and later turned over to — not the police — but anchorman Schottelkotte live on the 11 p.m. news, while police waited (and fumed) off-camera. At the time, Schottelkotte was in the middle of his incredible 22-year streak as the city's top-rated 11 p.m. newscast.
"I can't tell you what made me apply to work there (at WCPO)," Johnson wrote. "I'm not sure there was a job opening." His first job was a newsroom assistant at the assignment desk near the police radio scanners in the old Channel 9 building at Central Avenue and Fifth Street (torn down in 2004 for convention center expansion).
"I don't think I would have ever been noticed had I not been the only Black employee in the entire newsroom," he wrote. "Everyone was polite, offering to help if I needed. But how could I not notice there were no Black camera people, editors, writers, managers, reporters, anchors? Any job that I learned to do well or badly, I would be the first Black person in that job. Pressure from day one!"
Early on he figured out that he needed to rely on "everything about white people that I had learned" from two years at Sacred Heart Seminary. He needed to drop the Louisville drawl and to "pick up speed in my conversations."
After being told his writing skills were "unacceptable," he would stay late and go through newsroom waste baskets to collect other reporters "polished copy" to study. He would rewrite his stories three or four times before submitting them to Schottelkotte.
"Their (white reporters) command of the language was flawless. Mine was merely OK, for a Black guy," he wrote. He got a dictionary and a thesaurus; he took speech and voice lessons.
Johnson soon proved his value to Channel 9. He used his connections with fraternity brothers to get University of Cincinnati basketball star Derrick Dickey to talk about the firing of basketball coach Tay Baker. Seminary contacts tipped him off that Cincinnati's new Catholic archbishop would be Joseph Bernadine of Chicago.
"Eventually I built a solid Rolodex of police, fire, political and community contacts who would tip me off to breaking stories," he wrote.
Johnson helped break stories about Cincinnati Police Chief Carl Goodin and six vice squad officers charged with bribery, extortion and perjury; allegations that Vice Mayor William Chenault was padding his expense accounts; and the safe recovery of a 4-year-old girl — the daughter of Taft Broadcasting executive Charlie Mechem — a day after her kidnapping in 1974.
Johnson also shared this TV news secret from the 1970s, before cameras were allowed in Ohio courtrooms: When a TV crew arrived late and missed sheriff's deputies walking a suspect down a courthouse hall to the courtroom, the deputies went back into the courtroom, handcuff the suspect again, and walk him up and down the hallway.
"Got what you need?" they'd ask the TV crew.
With Schottelkotte's encouragement, Johnson completed his bachelor's degree at Northern Kentucky State College (now a university), and enrolled in a master's in Public Affairs program at the University of Cincinnati. While a full-time student, he worked an early shift and anchored Channel 9's five-minute local news break in CBS' morning news.
Johnson first came to Cincinnati in 1964, as a freshman at the Sacred Heart Seminary high school on Beechmont Avenue. He and his four brothers were baptized and raised Catholic in Louisville after his single mother started cooking and cleaning for a wealthy white Irish Catholic family.
Sacred Heart Seminary "was a game changer" for the 14-year-old Johnson. His reading, math and language skills improved dramatically. He also learned, much to his surprise, that some of his classmates "had never known a Black person."
Johnson didn't return for his junior year after losing interest in the priesthood, and gaining interest in girls. But he kept in touch with classmates, including one who told Johnson just a few years ago, when he was researching the seminary chapter, that he had been sexually assaulted by a priest while in the infirmary.
"People should have been prosecuted," Johnson wrote.
Thanks to the training at WCPO, Johnson's career flourished in Washington, D.C. He reported from Rome, Bangkok, Moscow, Budapest and Cuba. He won 22 Emmy awards, and was inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame, the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame and Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Kentucky.
Johnson also wrote a book called Heart to Heart about recovering from a heart attack in 1992. (The title of Surviving Deep Waters was inspired by Isaiah 43:1-2, "When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.")
And it all happened because Al Schottelkotte hired him in 1972, he writes.
"I could not have landed at a better place to start my career in journalism," wrote Johnson, who kept in touch with Schottelkotte and saw him when the Scripps Howard executive visited Washington. Schottelkotte died in 1996 at 69.
"Working for Schottelkotte was this rookie reporter's Christmas. I got everything I wanted and needed in that four-year experience; no postgraduate journalism school could compare … He (Schottelkotte) deserved all the credit."