By Dwight Hobbes
Word of Gil Noble’s death stopped more than a few folk cold. Black journalism today is what it is — quality reporting — because Noble, Sue Simmons, Bob Teague, Carole Simpson and their contemporaries broached the field.
In the late 1960s, African America had truly had enough of putting up with the same-old same-old — being treated like something stinks and needs to be flushed down the toilet. We raised pure hell from sea to shining sea, so rioting in cities that police guns, dogs, shields and batons were no longer enough to put us back in our proscribed place. It exposed this great, shining democracy on the world stage as a nation that failed to live up to its espoused commitment to freedom and equality for all its citizens.
Suddenly, somebody somewhere in hierarchy decided to throw a lightning bolt. To mollify Black folk: Showcase Black newsmen — and women! — on local and national broadcasts. Execs went so far as to, instead of just hiring the handiest spooks to sit by the door, contracted, qualified pros. This resulted in unprecedented coverage of Black issues.
That unprecedented coverage was, as well, unflinching in Gil Noble’s reporting. As part of the landslide groundswell of “equal opportunity,” Black radio stations sprang up. Raiding those stations, White corporations swooped in and, signing fat checks, scooped up Black talent for television like it was lunch.
Accordingly, WABC-TV in New York City in 1967 hired Noble away from WLIB radio, where he’d reported on the Newark, New Jersey uprisings. In short order, he and his amiable but no-nonsense style were promoted. The very next year, he was an anchor of the Saturday and Sunday evening newscasts. That was January. By November, WABC realized they had more than just a token by which to appease irate opinion makers and put the ABC network — WABC is the flagship station owned by the network — in a positive, socially progressive light.
They had a journalist who understood what it meant to seriously explore and illuminate the Black experience in American life. Nor was he shy about threading the connection of Black America to African history and, crucially, events transpiring at the time in Africa. Bottom line, he drew ratings. People — mainly middle-class Blacks thirsty to confirm their cultural sense of self and, it goes without saying, White liberals — were tuning in.
Execs that year, green-lighted Like It Is, Noble’s public affairs program, granting him license for the format. He therefore ran the gamut. If it was Black and worth being bothered with, Gil Noble stepped in where mainstream media previously had turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.
He was among the first to talk on television with such political nobles as Jesse Jackson, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Louis Farrakhan, as well as entertainment icons such as Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby and sports immortals such as Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe. A devout jazz aficionado, he also provided national exposure artists like Billy Taylor and Johnny Hartman would otherwise never have received.
Throughout his career, the man spoke on-camera with scores of national and international luminaries, including President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He created documentaries on Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Charlie Parker, among many other notables. He wrote, produced and directed the first documentary on Paul Robeson, The Tallest Tree in Our Forest.
His autobiography, Black is the Color of My TV Tube, is a eye-opening look this media pioneer who, by the by, won seven Emmy Awards, 650 community awards and was granted five honorary doctorates from American universities.
Like It Is lasted, incredibly enough, until 2011, when Noble suffered a serious stroke and his family announced he wouldn’t be returning to the air.
Gil Noble is gone. And with him, a hallmark in the history of American media.