Monday, November 12, 2007

Mal Johnson - Boss and Friend

"If anyone cries or starts to feel sorry for me, I’ll come back and kick their ass." Mal Johnson, last words

Mal Johnson was my first boss. She was the real deal. Smart. Personable. Hard-working. Genuine. Modest, sometimes almost self-effacing. Yet at her core, spicy, pragmatic and confident.

Yes, I have a story. Not about Mal, but from Mal. And it's a doozy.

I worked as Mal's assistant at WKBS TV in Philly while still an Annenberg student. It was such a small station, we did everything. Reporting, directing, research, commercials, voice-overs, writing, editing.

Mal was my teacher, my mentor, my role model. I was a young white girl but I never thought of Mal as a "black woman." She made no distinctions, fit no stereotype, drew no lines. She simply set high standards and expected us both to meet them. Together.

Mal Johnson was the kind of consummate professional who's a force of nature. A leader and a trailblazer. But here's the thing: I knew her when that part of her life was just beginning.

I was there when she first met Cox Broadcasting CEO Leonard Reinsch. An older, rich, Establishment white guy. Who saw Mal's potential and offered her a chance to realize it.

She and I spent hours discussing whether she should take the job as first female reporter for Cox Radio and Television News. On Capitol Hill no less.

Obviously she did, the rest is important journalistic and black history. Leonard Reinsch became Mal's mentor. I joined her for a brief time at Cox and I can tell you Reinsch was an astute business executive, a warm, caring friend and a complete enigma.

Leonard Reinsch was a broadcasting legend. He created the early radio "fireside chats" which FDR made so famous. US presidents still talk directly to the nation today based on Reinsch's original concept.

But Leonard Reinsch made possibly his greatest contribution to history when orchestrating the first televised Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates, 1960, throwing in a little added insurance for JFK.

Therein lies the story. As told to Mal by Leonard. As told to me by Mal.

Most historians agree that on substance alone, Nixon was the clear winner. But millions of viewers saw much more than they heard. A pale, shadowed, fidgety Richard Nixon, uncomfortable and sweating profusely. Not a pretty picture.

At the other podium, tan, fit, steady John F. Kennedy, facing the camera directly, calm and dry. The very picture of a confident Commander in Chief.

Here's why. Leonard Reinsch was a Kennedy man. He knew Nixon always had a pronounced 5 o'clock shadow and tended to sweat a lot, plus, he'd just had knee surgery. All of which made Nixon vulnerable to --irony of ironies-- dirty tricks.

So Leonard Reinsch had someone turn off the air conditioning in the studio. Small space, big cameras, hot lights. The temperature soared. Nixon was cooked.

JFK stayed cool and collected. How? Because at every break, he was given a fresh towel, a dusting of talcum powder and a clean duplicate shirt, tie and jacket.

Mal believed Leonard's story and I do too. We may never know. In the end, it's not as important as this: If you don't know about Mal Johnson, you should. You owe her a lot. We all do.

Good-bye, Mal and thank you. You led the way. And kicked ass to make sure everybody followed.

Brief biography of Mal Johnson from the National Council of Women's Organizations (slightly edited)

Mal Johnson is a founding member of Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, and was a television reporter at the former WKBS in Philadelphia. Ms. Johnson became the first female reporter employed at Cox Radio and Television News, where she worked for 27 years. As their first female White House correspondent, Ms. Johnson covered five presidents, as well as Capitol Hill, the State Department, and various Federal agencies. In 1980, Ms. Johnson was promoted to Senior Washington Correspondent and assigned additional duties as National Director of Community Affairs. She is a Founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs. She was inducted in the Journalists Hall of Fame in 2000. A TV documentary of her life is in the Archives of the History Makers of America.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good one! If only somebody had done that to Bush.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice story.well always

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece. You sure can write, girlfriend!!

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Sally,
I was googling and found your memoir about Mal on your blog. She and I were friends more and more from about 1992 on - we worked together very closely the last four years especially, in the International Association of Women in Radio & TV. I put up a blog just about Mal, and have excerpted a little of your post and pasted a link. You might like to jaunt over there - it's growing bit by bit. I haven't even posted my own memories yet - I'm still thinking about her and wondering how to say what I felt. I thought what you said was extremely apt, and showed she had the same kind of character throughout her professional life.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I met Mal in Ghana in 2002 when she came for the IAWRT board meeting in preparation for the IAWRT conference in 2003, she was such a gentle soul and a walking pack of knowledge - I couldn't tap enough but trust me the little i did get is still a rock i rest on. A life well lived Mal - do rest in peace

12:39 PM  

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