The public "saved me my job," says controversial Max Robinson, the nation's only black anchor man on network television. Letters, telephone calls, and other messages from the public, including many whites, helped him, he said, after he had been quoted as telling a Smith College audience that the ABC network discriminated against black reporters by not using them in its coverage of the presidential inauguration and the freeing of the American hostages by Iran.
Appearing here recently before a predominantly black audience, Mr. Robinson said the news media give a distorted picture of America by diluting the plight of the nation's black people.
"I cannot call myself an honest man or a black achiever if I take the big money and keep my mouth shut," said Robinson, the Chicago-based anchor on the ABC-TV's weekday "World News Tonight."
He restated his charge of "unconscious racism" at the decisionmaking level in the news media, a stand that placed him in the "hot seat" at Smith, in Northampton, Mass.
Black people holding high positions cannot call themselves achievers if they "take the money and run" and cuddle up in a shell of silence, Mr. Robinson insisted in an interview. "Mr complaint is not about my personal situation with ABC," he said in the interview. "My beef is about the media as a whole, about unconscious racism in a business that has few black people at decisionmaking levels. My concern is with the handling of news about black people on all the nation's news networks."
And he does not plan to quit his job at ABC, he says. "We are in negotiation , and I expect to be with ABC in the years ahead," he insisted. He said nothing about terms discussed in contract renewal talks.
Network officials indicate that ABC includes four blacks among its 65 correspondents, while the rival networks, CBS and NBC, employ 8 blacks each.
The news media -- print and electronic -- are insensitive and "unaware" of what is going on among the nation's black people, Robinson said, because minorities are not a major factor in the selection of news to be covered.
Robinson stressed his accountability as a black person to "my people" and his responsibility as a professional journalist to the public.
"As a pioneer -- a first black -- I am forced to do some soul searching, to find out who I am," he said. "And after the Smith incident the unexpected happened. Cards, letters, telephone calls -- mostly blacks, but many whites wrote, too -- probably saved me my job. This was unexpected. It has made a difference in my life."
After a meeting with Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, "we reached an understanding," Robinson added.
In his appearance before a predominantly black audience in the Roxbury section of Boston, the ABC anchor man used the same format he took at Smith, a short formal address followed by an open question-and-answer period from the floor.
"To live in America as a black person is a massive risk no matter where or who you are," he said. "Black and white America rarely speak to each other. And the media reflect the nation. The news you get is not an accurate picture of America."
If people in the media fail to seek improvement, the industry fails to progress and learn. Black people have a responsibility, too, he says.
"If all we do is sit back and grumble or wait for the other fellow to act or speak out, we can expect little change," he said. "The media fail to give light on the forgotten corners in America. We are headed for serious and troubled waters if we do nothing."
Affluent blacks cannot draw big salaries and relax in suburban hideaways outside the ghetto and feel safe, Robinson reasons. "Too many of use close our doors to the black masses," he said. "And for me not to talk about what's happening makes no sense, either."
His own appearance at Smith and the Janet Cooke debacle -- she was the Washington Post reporter who admitted writing a fictitious story that almost won her a Pulitzer Prize -- have "raised eyebrows" in assessments of black journalists, Robinson says.
Claiming that Miss Cooke is referred to "as the colored girl who lied," he said, "Janet Cooke was not the whole problem. She did a needed service by clearing the air on the tenuous existence of black people."
Of himself, Mr. Robinson said, "Being a symbol, a black 'first,' without substance is worse than not being a symbol at all. There is a need for black Americans to talk about what ails black Americans.