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Veteran newsman signs off

KTLA's Warren Wilson covered many of L.A.'s top news stories over the decades, including the 1992 riots and O.J.

June 18, 2005|Merrill Balassone | Times Staff Writer

Warren Wilson, a veteran reporter who is perhaps best known for helping to surrender 22 wanted fugitives to police, has retired and plans on writing a book about his experience as a pioneering African American journalist in Los Angeles.

Wilson left KTLA, where he had worked for 21 years, earlier this month. His retirement was made public earlier this week.

Over the course of half a century working for radio, television and news wires, Wilson has reported on some of the biggest news stories in Los Angeles, including the 1992 riots, the North Hollywood Bank of America shootout and the O.J. Simpson trial. He won a news feature Emmy in 1979 and has been nominated for the award more than 20 times.

But broadcast journalism has changed, Wilson said, and not for the better. He decided it was time to leave. "I have done everything I've set out to do, despite the obstacles that were in my way from the beginning," he said in an interview.

Wilson, 71, said he hopes to travel, write a book and try his hand at writing movie scripts for television.

His retirement comes a year after he filed a discrimination complaint with KTLA, alleging that he was being paid less than younger, white reporters and was not given high-profile stories that allow reporters longer live shots and more exposure. KTLA and The Times are both owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co.

Wilson said his decision had nothing to do with the dispute, and KTLA General Manager Vincent Malcolm wished him well.

"We think his career was exemplary, and thanks to Warren, there's a lot of opportunity for people like myself," said Malcolm, noting that he is himself of Jamaican descent. "He was a trailblazer and has inspired other people of color to pursue a career in journalism."

Wilson was one of the first African American journalists who went on the air in Los Angeles, joining KNBC in the late 1960s, a few years after the Watts riots. Other black journalists began appearing on television in the early 1970s and '80s, including the late Larry McCormick, an anchor for KTLA, and former KTTV Fox anchor Tony Cox.

Newsrooms first began to hire black reporters during the 1965 Watts riots, Cox said. He and Wilson were often sent to cover the same dangerous, late-night crime stories.

"We were competitors and yet were compatriots," Cox said. "We had to compete for stories, yet we knew we had a common experience in terms of being in newsrooms that were often hostile toward us."

At his first job interview for a reporting position at KNXT (now KCBS), Wilson says the news director turned him down, claiming that the lighting and cameras wouldn't facilitate a black man interviewing a white person on television.

Born to a North Carolina sharecropper, Wilson earned a law degree before working for the City News Service and all-news radio stations. He held various senior reporting positions for KNBC and NBC News in Burbank before he was hired at KTLA in 1984.

Two weeks after suffering a heart attack in 1992, Wilson found himself in the midst of looting and rioting as he covered the unrest erupting from the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial, in front of LAPD headquarters. Rioters threw bottles at his news van, and he climbed to the roof of a burning building to interview a man trying to put out the fire with a water hose. Wilson and his team won a Peabody Award for their coverage.

"He was right out there in the center of things, asking why things were happening, why there was so much destruction," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said of Wilson's coverage that night. "He was willing to be on the street, letting people know what was happening in their community."

At a time of little trust between the black community and the LAPD, fugitives or their families would turn to Wilson and ask that he help them surrender to police.

"People knew that if Warren Wilson was involved, that there would not be an incident where a person would be mistreated," said L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks, who saw Wilson on crime scenes when he was chief of police.

Some journalists criticized Wilson's involvement in criminal cases, arguing that he crossed the line between reporting the story and becoming part of it. But Wilson felt a moral obligation to intervene. And he believes that lives were saved because of his role.

Wilson said he worries about the nature of television news today, as it focuses more on celebrity and entertainment.

"We're seeing people become reporters who have no experience, no background," he said. "Their only interest is the entertainment value of it."

Throughout his career, Wilson says the advice given him by his father, who was once assaulted by members of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina, helped him overcome the racism he has faced in local newsrooms.

"He told me, 'Listen, they will knock you down on your knees, on your back, but you will have to get back up because as long as you stay there, that's where you'll always be. But if you get back up you will always be a step above them.' "

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