By Linda Tarrant-Reid
Two giants of journalism died recently, days apart, leaving a deep void in the coverage of significant stories that speak to the history of a people and the corruption of the system. Gil Noble was the producer/host of the iconic, long-running, award-winning public affairs program “Like It Is” which aired on the ABC affiliate, WABC-TV, in New York.
The weekly program, which ran for 33 years, covered people, places and events that affected the African American community, nationally and internationally, and focused on stories often ignored by mainstream media outlets. Gil died on April 5 at the age of 80 from complications of a stroke that ended his appearances on “Like It Is” in 2011.
The other journalist who passed away two days after Gil was Mike Wallace, the “60 Minutes” firebrand, who made all of his subjects uncomfortable with his hard charging, confrontational interviews.
Wallace, 93, died on April 7 after a long illness. Wallace, the king of “ambush interviews”, asked the questions others were afraid to ask and in many cases, received answers that no one expected.
Noble and Wallace began working at the TV programs that would define their careers and legacies in 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, amid student protests against the Vietnam War and political upheaval at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That same year, MLK and RFK were assassinated, LBJ had decided not to seek reelection and Richard Nixon (who became known as “Tricky Dick”) would go on to capture the highest office in the land – the presidency.
Noble got his first media job at WLIB-AM, a Black radio station in Harlem in the early 1960s. A temporary position that was only to last three months, Noble loved his new gig and vowed to learn everything he could in the short time allotted to him by Bill McCreary, the news director. After three months, Noble was kept on and from his radio perch he came into contact with the “who’s who of African American history and culture.” Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Dizzy Gillespie, Errol Garner and the Black Panthers are just a few of the folks who came through the radio station while Noble was there.
While reporting for WLIB-AM, Gil would encounter reporters from the local TV stations and one day a white reporter from WABC-TV asked if he would be interested in a job as a TV reporter. Gil was interviewed and given a one week, on-air audition. His first assignment was covering the Newark Riots right after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968.
From that assignment, Gil Noble was hired as a street reporter for WABC-TV News and would go on to become a weekend anchor and then the host of “Like It Is.”
“Like It Is” was born as a result of the Kerner Commission’s Report. President Lyndon Johnson formed an advisory commission after the riots of 1964 and 1967 to find out why the riots had occurred and how to prevent future civil disorders. The Kerner Report concluded that: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” In the media coverage of the race riots, the Kerner Report found, “a significant imbalance between what actually happened in our cities and what the newspaper, radio and television coverage of the riots told us what happened…We found that the disorders, as serious as they were, were less destructive, less widespread, and less a black-white confrontation than most people believed…We are deeply concerned that millions of other Americans, who must rely on the mass media, likewise formed incorrect impressions and judgments about what went on in many Americans cities last summer.”
The recommendations of the Kerner Report put media bias under a microscope. After analyzing the coverage of the riots and determining there was inaccurate reporting and inflated damage estimates, the Commission’s position was that media organizations needed to hire African Americans as journalists to report accurately on events in the Black community and Black producers to produce programming that included the African American experience in all aspects of televised presentations.
Gil Noble was a “beneficiary” of the awakening and became the co-host of “Like It Is” with actor Robert Hooks in 1968 and producer Charles Hobson. In an interview with Harold Hudson Channer in 1998, Noble said “Like It Is” was the only ABC program produced and conceptualized by people of African descent. In 1969, Bobby Hooks left the show to do the TV series, “NYPD,” and Gil became the sole host and producer.
“Like It Is” became the touchstone of the African American community, locally, nationally and globally. Gil’s guests included entertainers, politicians, educators, historians and activists who shared their experiences.
Last year, I watched an archival “Like It Is” that originally aired on June 29, 1969 in which Gil interviewed entertainer extraordinaire Sammy Davis, Jr. First, I want to say, I really never appreciated the genius of Sammy until I watched that interview. Of course, I’d seen Sammy in the 60s on the variety shows on TV and watched him dance, sing and tell jokes, but he was really “old school” as far as I was concerned. Not until I heard Davis talk about the racism he experienced as he traveled the Chitlin’ Circuit as a young Black entertainer performing at clubs around the country and how he was discriminated against later when he was one of the Rat Pack with white entertainers Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Joey Bishop in the 1960s, did I truly understand what a trailblazer Sammy was.
Gil gently probed Davis about his marriage to the white Mai Britt during the Civil Rights Era, his conversion to Judaism, his conked or straightened hairdo, and his work with white performers. Davis shared his journey from a child star to mega success, warts and all, and his commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. This was riveting TV and Gil was the guide.
No one will replace Gil Noble as the journalist guide who brought our stories to a wider audience in a medium that was reluctant to give us a stage.
His interviews with Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Nelson Mandela, Aretha Franklin, and his documentary on Malcolm X have given us priceless, first-person historic nuggets that define each of us and our history. And we thank you for that, Gil.
Gil Noble owned the copyright to all of his “Like It Is” programs that aired on WABC-TV for the past 33 years. That in itself is amazing, that doesn’t happen today! So the legacy lives on, donate to the Gil Noble Archives at: http://gilnoblearchives.com/