An Interview with Bruce Johnson

  • By Larry Matthews
  • March 29, 2022

The former WUSA anchor talks Kentucky, DC news, and his recent memoir.

An Interview with Bruce Johnson

Over the course of more than four decades at Washington, DC, television station WUSA (Channel 9), Bruce Johnson earned 22 Emmys, was inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame, and received many other honors. Not bad for a poor Black kid from Louisville whose early prospects were slim at best.

Now retired, Johnson recounts his life journey in his new memoir, Surviving Deep Waters, a moving account of the poverty of his youth, his determination to make something of himself, overcoming racial challenges, and standing toe to toe with the high and mighty, most especially Marion Barry, Washington’s legendary onetime mayor.

Your book is a story of a poor Black kid in Kentucky who grows up to become a prominent Washington television journalist. What do you want readers to come away with?

My story is a coming-of-age story of an African American youth born into poverty to a Black mother [and] raised by a grandmother who was a child of former slaves. They gave me what they could. It turned out to be just enough. Looking back, I realize that where their options ended, mine were just beginning, and it’s because they were my constant support team — my cheerleaders — [that] I had a shot to go further than any of them could have imagined. My story begins with them on a plantation in a small Kentucky town called Pembroke.

Early in your career, you were often “the first” or “the only” Black man in the newsroom. What was that like?

I am reminded of how lonely it was at times in the beginning. Laughing at racial jokes that weren’t funny. I often went along just to get along. I wanted to be accepted, not a bother. I wanted to become a major contributor and I did. Days after arriving at WCPO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Cincinnati, I was able to score exclusive interviews with members of the UC basketball team after their coach was abruptly fired. I followed that up with a [story that revealed the name of] the new archbishop. I knew I had found my career. They were actually paying us to get into other people’s business!

Your generation included Jim Vance, Max Robinson, and others who made their marks in TV journalism and paved the way for others. How did these men influence you?

They were very good and far better than me on air. I had to step up my journalism game before even approaching them for confidential talk about their journalism and personal experiences. Their mere presence provided me the cover to produce some tough investigative stories that political leaders didn’t like, especially coming from the new kid in town.

What do you think it takes to be successful in a competitive field like TV journalism?

Most people don’t last. This isn’t easy work. The hours are crazy. The money is not that great at the start or the middle of most careers. You have to want to be good, if not special. People could trust me even with their bad news. I was tough but fair with people caught doing wrong. I fought for diversity in our coverage and the inclusion of minorities when reporting on everyday people.

You have endured major challenges in your personal life, including a heart attack and cancer. Yet you survived both and kept working. What’s your takeaway from that?

That I’m not in control of many things. Do what I can and leave the rest up to God’s grace. After recovering from a heart attack, I trained and completed the 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon. Who does that?

You often speak to young people about the news business. What do you tell them?

Don’t judge! Allow people to tell you their side of the story before writing it. You don’t have to be a brave journalist, but you should be curious. Finally, don’t waste the viewers’ time. They have options for where they get their information. When you show up on my laptop, cellphone, or TV screen, you’d better be telling me something that I can’t find in seconds on my iPhone!

Larry Matthews is a former broadcast journalist and author of I Used To Be In Radio.

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