He inspired with an effortless cool
From Vietnam to the anchor desk to 60 Minutes, Ed Bradley gave journalists of color everywhere someone to look up to. And to live up to.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published November 10, 2006
For me, it mostly came down to the earring.
A small stud quietly tucked in his left ear, it was a subtle signal that legendary CBS newsman Ed Bradley was coming to his pioneering roles - first black White House correspondent for CBS News, first black correspondent for 60 Minutes, first black anchor for the network's Sunday night newscast - as his own man.
So when news broke that Bradley had died at age 65 of leukemia on Thursday morning, I thought of that earring and what it meant for journalists of color everywhere.
"He gave us pride and he gave us hope," said Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists. "Especially now, as it becomes harder and harder for black journalists to succeed, many feel they've got to assimilate and compromise who they are. He is the beacon to say you can be who you are and succeed; you can do both."
Indeed, when I interviewed Bradley six years ago, he talked of watching reports in 1962 on the Cuban Missile Crisis by Malvin Goode - the first black network TV news correspondent, working for ABC - which convinced the Philadelphia disc jockey and former sixth-grade teacher that he could handle that job, too.
"It was a double 'wow,' " he said in March 2000. "Seeing a black man on TV news, and he's talking about the hottest news of the day? Not too many years down the line, I decided I could do it, because I'd seen Mal do it."
Of course, Bradley was never a journalist who could be defined solely by his color. Like fellow Philadelphia native Bill Cosby, Bradley seemed to transcend race with a deceptively easygoing image that belied his hard work. From the plight of Vietnamese refugee "boat people" in 1979 to flaws in the rape allegations leveled against members of Duke University's lacrosse team this year, Bradley kept the scoops coming over 39 years at CBS.
"The thing about Ed was his effortless cool," said Rene Syler, co-host of CBS's The Early Show, who is black. "He understood that a lot of people were watching him, friends and otherwise, and he knew what was at stake."
According to Terry Martin, a 34-year CBS employee who now teaches at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, that effortless image was something Bradley worked hard to maintain.
"There was never an assignment he took for which he wasn't meticulously prepared," said Martin, noting the fitness conscious Bradley sometimes insisted a Stairmaster be placed in his hotel room on trips. "The physical effort he put into appearing on air ... he really was pitch perfect all the time."
Hired by CBS Radio in New York in the late '60s, Bradley freelanced for CBS News in Paris before heading to Vietnam and Cambodia. Assigned to cover Jimmy Carter for the 1976 election - Martin said it was because CBS brass didn't expect Carter to win - Bradley became White House correspondent when the Georgia governor took the White House.
"I think he thought it was boring," said former CBS anchor Connie Chung, who joined Bradley, Lesley Stahl and Bernard Shaw at the network's Washington bureau - a group hired to stem government criticism that CBS lacked diversity. Chung recalled Bradley refused to take assignments he felt were beneath him, even then.
Now that he's gone, the journalists of color he inspired - this one included - just hope to continue the cycle of inspiration and achievement.
"I would look at him and think 'That's what I want to do - ask questions in a compelling way that elicits the truth,' " said Syler. "We just hope we can do him proud."
Read more at Eric Deggans blog, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com.