by Robert Gagnier

Best of New OrleansAfter more than four decades as a broadcast journalist, Norman Robinson appeared on his last official newscast Friday, May 30. The Mississippi native started his career with an entry-level job at a southern California radio station, with stints as a broadcaster in Alabama, New York and Washington, D.C., where he was a White House correspondent for CBS, before arriving at WDSU Channel 6 in New Orleans. Not long after bidding New Orleanians across the Crescent City a final goodnight as senior news anchor at the local NBC affiliate, Robinson sat down with Robert Gagnier to share a few highlights of his long and notable career. From spirited advice he received from the city’s first African mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial to his controversial interview of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, Robinson—a senior statesman among metro area journalists—talks candidly about these experiences and more as he prepares for a new phase in his life.

ROBERT GAGNIER: Mr. Robinson you have had a long and distinguished career, especially here in New Orleans. Why did you decide to retire at this particular time?
NORMAN ROBINSON: There comes a point in time in every person’s life when they need to make a transition. I have been an anchor for 24 years and a reporter for 42; and at this stage in my life, I feel as though it is time to have a new adventure.

RG: You were a musician for the U.S. Marines prior to becoming involved in the world of journalism. What instruments did you play?
NR: I played the euphonium in the official band and bass trombone; and that actually kept me out of the Vietnam War. I can recall my music instructor telling me long ago (he was a World War II veteran) that if I ever got drafted or joined the

military, (a musical) instrument could (keep Robinson out of war). In time, met a friend named Dave Pietre, who was from Detroit. We were taking night courses in broadcast journalism; and he convinced me to stick with it and told me that I had a voice for the business. It turned out that I fell in love with the idea of broadcasting. It just called to me. I also grew up around a minister who demanded children become proficient at speaking and representing themselves. And so a lot of the training I got to use as a broadcaster came by way of me growing up in the church.

RG: Your career began in radio. Can you tell the readers the name of the radio station and where it was located?
NR: The station was KYMS, located in Santa Ana, Calif. It played acid rock, believe it or not. That was where I cut my teeth in the business. Interestingly enough, it’s now a Christian radio station. It wound up being a great opportunity for training. When I first showed up, they didn’t want to give me a job. But I repeatedly kept on going back to the station, and they kept saying we don’t have any openings. Finally, Mr. Bill Fox, the general manager, asked me what he could do for me. I informed him that I wanted to be a part of the job training program that assisted military veterans with their transition back to civilian life. I was initially relegated to the role of a gopher for about a month. But I stuck it out because I knew that it was my ticket out of the military. And after a while they showed me how to write copy, edit and do commercials. Eventually, they allowed me to go on the air.

RG: How was your experience working for the White House Press Corp for CBS, and did you ever think that you would live to see a Black president?
NR: I wasn’t overly impressed with my tenure at the White House because I saw it as a job that you would ultimately have to be married to. I wanted to live in a stable community where I could move about with some degree of freedom. However, it was the White House correspondent position that would ultimately give me the credentials to anchor one day. Now, did I ever think I would live to see a Black president? Absolutely not. I never thought I’d live to see a Black news anchor! People had this perception that Black (broadcasters) were just not up to the task. I remember being interviewed by Tom Brokaw when he came here once, and he told me that he never thought he would see a Black anchor on television.

RG: What are the two most memorable interviews you conducted while at WDSU?
NR: The first had to be with Dutch Morial (the city’s first Black mayor). To this day, that interview sticks out to me. Because here was a man who faced all sorts of challenges, and he did it with his dignity and humanity intact. He was a statesman and he would look at you and say, “Who told you to ask that question?” or “Where did you get that question from?” I learned that having an interview with someone equates to an opportunity. Dutch would always tell us to be prepared. He always said that you need to get the proper amount of rest, because “you can’t hoot with the owls at night, and fly with the eagles in the morning”. I never forgot that, and I always appreciated him. I realized that our interview was going to be a profound moment.
The second interview that sticks out in my mind was one that I took a lot of flak for. And that was with David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, during his run for governor. The White community was upset with me because I had called Duke out. I had confronted all of the ugliness and raw emotions that were lying there beneath the surface. I lost a lot of White friends because of that interview. People wanted to hurt me. Some wanted me dead. I had to get my number changed and had police protection both to and from work. There were Black police officers who even gave me a weapon to protect myself. But it was a resounding interview that was heard around the nation. I even got a call from the White House asking me to back off. Now people should know that I grew up in rural, tough Mississippi; and so I understood what it meant to have a confrontation with a grand wizard from the KKK. My grandfather was once run off his property by the Klan, and so I knew and fully appreciated what that moment would mean. The station’s phone lines became so inundated, they wouldn’t work after a while. Tons of letters came in; and I read them all. Many criticized me for the piece with Duke, but that interview was a turning point in my career.

RG: Hurricane Katrina came along and almost destroyed the entire city. What is it about the people of this NOLA that makes them so resilient?
NR: New Orleanians have a respect and understanding for community that exists here, like no other place. And because of that, there is no other community that I know of that will rally like they did when Katrina came. These folks said “we are not going away”, and they pulled themselves up and saved themselves without FEMA, the government or the president.

RG: Why did you sue FEMA?
NR: I sued FEMA because the people in New Orleans East, my community, needed representation. They needed a name that people could identify with and rally around. I lived in a community called Spring Lake which had a good amount of widows there. One day, one of my neighbors, an elderly White woman began to break down and hugged me. She said, “What am I going to do”? From that moment on I said to myself that I would represent people like that. And that’s also when we started the “Hot Seat”, which wound up being some of the most compelling television I have ever been involved with. I was able to get a variety of guests to appear on the show and proceed to grill them about the state of recovery. I tried to do my best as a journalist to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I did my best to champion the cause for my community and the people who lived there.

RG: What in your opinion are the primary traits and aspects of a solid journalist?
NR: It has been said that journalism is simple, honest curiosity. To me, that is the trait of a good journalist. He or she has to be curious about the truth and the status of humanity. They need to be curious about looking into things that need rectifying, that need attention. They need to be curious about their own communities and about the status and condition of people in general. Our job is to shine the light where it needs to be shone.

RG: What does the future hold for Norman Robinson?
NR: My inner voice has been calling me to do something new. I can’t say exactly what that is, but I do know that it is more spiritually oriented and has to do with giving back and exploring the depths of my humanity.

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