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So What Do You, Do Belva Davis, Pioneering Broadcast Journalist, TV Host and Author?

'Black women have made progress since I started [in journalism], but you can't go into it wanting to be a movie star.'

- July 30, 2014
Most of us take for granted the multiculturalism that greets television viewers daily. There is the intelligence and talent of Tamron Hall, Jacque Reid, Soledad O'Brien and the mononymous Oprah, along with local news anchors and correspondents who color broadcast journalism. Those on the screen and we on the other side of it are beneficiaries of Belva Davis' five decades of impassioned, award-winning work in the field.

She is the first African-American woman television reporter on the West Coast and, until her retirement in 2012, she hosted "This Week in Northern California" for 19 years. (Her final show featured personal friend and fellow phenom Maya Angelou.) To call her a pioneer would be accurate; to say we owe her a debt of gratitude would be an understatement.

A first-generation high school graduate and self-taught journalist who regularly interviewed luminaries and history makers -- among them Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bill Clinton -- she has had a special gift for tapping into the vulnerability of people at the center of news. "I think I've indulged myself to ask things that would interest me along with the customary questions," Davis explained. "If you're covering something that interests you, then you have a curiosity about it. If you're really interested in it, you try to dig a little deeper." Here, Davis, who at 81 has returned to her print roots as a freelancer and blogger, dishes on interviewing greats, threats from the Oakland police and the future of journalism.

Name: Belva Davis
Position: Author and broadcast journalist
Resume: Started career as a stringer for Jet magazine and later contributed to the Sun Reporter and Bay Area Independent. Edited the Sun Reporter from 1961 to 1968. Became an on-air interviewer for an AM radio station in San Francisco and disc jockey for a neighboring R&B station. In 1963, made television debut covering a black beauty pageant. Made history as the first female African-American television journalist on the West Coast when she was hired by KPIX in 1966. Worked there for 30 years and became an anchorwoman in 1970. Hosted "This Week in Northern California" for more than 19 years. Covered the Berkeley riots, the Black Panthers movement, the Jonestown massacre and the AIDS and crack epidemics. Also fielded politics, race and gender. Honored with seven Emmys, the inaugural Jefferson-Lincoln Award for Journalists by the Panetta Institute and three honorary doctorates. Published Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman's Life in Journalism in 2010. Retired in 2012 but continues to freelance and blog on issues related to the black community.
Birthdate: October 13, 1932
Hometown: Monroe, La.
Education: Berkeley High School
Marital status: Married to Bill Moore, the first black man to work as a cameraman at a major TV station
Media mentors: "There was no person I have to thank more than Louis Freeman, who was the news director at KDIA, the black radio station where I worked, and Edith Austin, who was editor of the black newspaper, where I also worked. As time went on and I tried to bring about some equity, I became a unionist and a man named Bill Hillman was my mentor. I could use the union to do what I couldn't do as an individual and Bill facilitated that."
Best career advice received: "You can't do anything well that you don't believe in."
Last book read: Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
Guilty pleasure: Cruises
Twitter handle: @BelvaDavis

The West Coast has a unique cultural and ethnic dynamic. Do you think that region was more receptive to a black woman television reporter when you made your on-air debut?
I would say so, though I don't know about all of California because I got into the business before anybody [of color] was hired in Los Angeles. You would think that would be natural, but it wasn't. We were in the land of rebellion here in Northern California. I had the Berkeley riots, the Black Panthers, all of the leading protest-changing people in this area. You could find support because everybody had a cause and that made it easier to get unusual things done. Because of segregation, I had to work for black or minority media. I'd built up a relationship with my community, so they agreed that I should be moving forward. My first week at KPIX, a CBS affiliate, the local Links chapter came down to wish me well, all 20 or so of them. They stopped in the lobby, talked to the station manager and said they were there to support me, and if there was any problem at all, notify them. Can you imagine that?

You weren't college educated, so everything you learned about journalism, you learned in the doing. How did that enhance your skill set and how did it challenge you professionally?
I worked hard. The information that I'd dig up was probably fresher than if I were recalling something I'd learned in school four years before. Every day was finals for me. With each interview and field of knowledge, I had to really research and prepare. I gave my best effort because I didn't feel I had the same background knowledge as people who'd gone to college. But we were all learning the tricks of the trade because we were new to the business of news gathering.

"If you're covering something that interests you, then you have a curiosity about it. If you're really interested in it, you try to dig a little deeper."

I started in print, writing stories for Jet. That copy was sent to their Chicago headquarters and, of course, they rewrote everything. The deal was that on Mondays, we had to go over everything I did and they'd tell me what I did right and wrong. I was paid $5 a week for that. Louis [Freeman] would also let me go out with him when he was covering stories that were coming of age as the civil rights movement grew. I'd sit in as he was doing interviews with some of the leaders who needed us back then, including Martin Luther King, Jr. They'd come to the station, and I'd listen to how he handled it.

I'm not a college graduate, but this year I was asked to be the commencement speaker for San Francisco State University, which is the school I applied to, got accepted into and couldn't afford to go to. I went back this year in cap and gown. God is good.

Who was your first major, most memorable interview?
Many people stood out for the wrong reasons. I interviewed Jim Jones, who was someone I never wanted to talk to, and I had a poor interview with W.E.B. Dubois because I was young and didn't know the significance of his importance. As time went on, I was interviewing Muhammad Ali one day and in the presence of Malcolm X the next. I did one of many interviews with Huey Newton in Cuba. Celebrities were open to me because I'd been on radio. I just pulled out some files the other day: interviews with Ella [Fitzgerald], Nancy [Wilson] and Lena [Horne]. Fragments of them will go into my archives, which I'm working on now. But I think it was my first interview with then-Governor Reagan because it was unusual that I got past the Republican barricade. That was because of a co-worker and mentor named Roland Post, who became my co-anchor on a political talk show.

We've heard accounts about sexism that coincided with the civil rights movement. What was your experience in the colorless, womanless field of journalism at that moment in history?
I worked my way through. I never complained about it. I came in with ideas and I think my assignment editor began to understand what kind of things I thought were important. I knew women in both struggles, black and white, the background people and the coffee-bringers. Of course, they rebelled. That's why I became such good friends with Aileen Hernandez, the second president of NOW [National Organization of Women], and Gloria Steinem back in the early days of the women's movement. I really worked with those women in getting their stories out.

I understand that during the first decade of your career, you never turned down a story and agreed to do whatever the editors assigned you. What was your reporting strategy?
My world had been limited, both by choice and by circumstance, to revolve totally around the black community. I knew that there were other worlds and if I was going to be on television, I had to learn about all kinds of people. So I cultivated stories about Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians. I even talked the station into launching a half-hour program about minorities. It was the first of its kind on primetime out here. I convinced them to add in some rotating co-anchors from the other groups. We'd get stories from all of those communities and did very well. It was on maybe three or four years.

"My world had been limited, both by choice and by circumstance, to revolve totally around the black community. I knew if I was going to be on television, I had to learn about all kinds of people."

I did walk off of one story, though. It was silly anyway. I was sent to cover a society fashion show and, as I often did, I carried part of the camera gear. I came in with the photographer and this woman started screaming at me. 'Where have you been? We've been waiting for you! Get backstage!' I said, 'Excuse me?' You can imagine what was next. She thought I was the ironing woman. I called my editor and said, 'I can't even pretend to do this story.' I was also pursuing another story for a long time that I had to walk away from because it was dangerous for my family. There were threats to my children. I was doing a story about racial profiling and it made the Oakland police mad. The series was called "Stopped for Questioning." We could put that title on a lot of stories today too, right?

Of radio, print and television, which has allowed you to do your best storytelling?
Radio was the most fun, but I'd say television because you've got visual, sound, and you're writing your scripts. That's a combination of all of it. It truly is a wonderful way to earn a living. I did a series on Native Americans called "Nothing Left But Pride." It was over the course of a number of months, doing all of these stories on the state of Native Americans in the Northern California region, traveling up to the Oregon border. They were at the bottom of the ladder in terms of exposure because their numbers are so small. That's when I got one of my better interviews -- Robert Kennedy. He flew with me on a helicopter up to an Indian reservation. Cameras weren't rolling. We just talked for two hours. It was a wonderful exchange.

You've pioneered for all women, particularly women of color. What are your expectations for these journalists now that there are broader platforms and opportunities?
I used to always answer, 'Work as hard as I did,' but I realize you have to work harder. Black women have made progress since I started [in journalism], but you can't go into it wanting to be a movie star. You can get by and make a living. But if you only prepare yourself to do the minute and 30 seconds they give you to do a story and didn't get the background so that it could be the best that could possibly happen, it would be difficult to contribute to journalistic knowledge. I see in so many young women an obligation to broaden the storyline. That means there's still a lot of good journalism out there.

Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.

NEXT >> So What Do you Do, Edward Lewis, Founder of Essence Magazine?

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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