Friday, January 27

Bruce Johnson, WUSA anchor and street-savvy reporter, dies at 71

Following the groundbreaking path set by Max Robinson and Jim Vance, Mr. Johnson was part of the second wave of Black journalists to appear on camera in major markets, spending 44 years at WUSA (Channel 9). In 1976, he joined a popular team of news reporters and anchors at Washington’s CBS affiliate (then called WTOP, later WDVM and WUSA) that included Gordon Peterson, J.C. Hayward, Maureen Bunyan and Glenn Brenner.

Over the decades, Mr. Johnson developed a reputation for covering grittier parts of the city, getting on-the-ground knowledge of those residents and taking their perspectives into account when asking pointed questions of city leaders.

“The real Bruce Johnson is the man you’d see out on the streets, usually two or three steps ahead of his cameraman, trying to get wherever he’s going,” said veteran Washington-area print, radio and television reporter Tom Sherwood. Mr. Johnson, he added, developed a style that was “friendly and brusque.”

At a news conference in 1987, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry lambasted residents who seemed to misuse and overburden the 911 emergency response system to address more routine health problems.

“A little while ago, you accused a certain segment, I guess low-income people in the city, of abusing the 911 system,” Mr. Johnson said. “You referred to a woman who had 12 or 14 kids, how you chastised her. You talked about a woman who didn’t keep her yard clean. Is there some theme, some message here you’ve got for the low-income people in the city?”

The mayor replied: “I think government has the responsibility to take care of the poor in the areas where they can’t take care of themselves. … But the message here is self-reliance, self-help, self-responsibility.”

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“Mr. Mayor,” Mr. Johnson followed-up, “won’t you also find in these [poor] communities the most violent crimes, the most domestic violence? People with serious health problems? Doesn’t it make sense they would call ambulances more so than people who can get in the car and drive for help?”

“I’m not saying that,” the mayor said, changing the subject. “That’s why we want to try to uplift the entire community. That’s why I’ve offered a job to every person who wants to work in the summer.”

In his memoir “Mayor for Life,” Barry wrote that Mr. Johnson “had always been a straightforward guy, off the record. I trusted his political insights and opinions. But he said that at the end of the day, the reporters all had to do their jobs, whether they liked what was going on or not.”

As he accumulated 22 local Emmy Awards and other honors, he gradually balanced weekday reporting and weekend anchoring duties. He also hosted “Off Script With Bruce Johnson,” a conversational newscast on national and local news stories featuring Mr. Johnson interviewing “the people behind the headlines,” according to WUSA. He occasionally hosted documentaries and specials, including one about institutionalization of the mentally ill in Washington, and reported from world capitals such as Paris and Dakar.

In 1992, at 42, Mr. Johnson suffered a massive heart attack while on a routine assignment in Southeast Washington.

“The pain was intense and unrelenting, and I immediately thought someone had shot me,” he later wrote in his book about cardiovascular disease, “Heart to Heart: 12 People Discover Better Lives After Their Heart Attacks.” “My hands moved to my chest to put pressure on a hemorrhage that wasn’t there. No blood. No hole in my starched, white dress shirt. … The pain was somewhere deep in my chest where I couldn’t get to it.”

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Mr. Johnson also interviewed other heart attack survivors and produced and moderated a documentary about heart disease afflicting the Black community, “Before You Eat the Church Food, Watch This Video.” Mr. Johnson also spoke about overcoming personal struggles, including years of heavy drinking before the heart attack and bouts with depression afterward, and became an advocate in the heart health community.

He spent two months recovering from the heart attack before returning to Channel 9 and took up running. Eight years later, he completed the 26-mile Marine Corps Marathon.

Chester Bruce Johnson was born in Louisville, on June 5, 1950. He graduated in 1973 from Northern Kentucky University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and, in 1975, he received a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Cincinnati.

He spent four years working in Cincinnati at WCPO-TV, which was then a CBS affiliate, before joining Channel 9 in Washington. One of the first stories in the District to bring him recognition was the 1977 Hanafi Muslim hostage siege of a city government building, the Islamic Center and B’nai B’rith International. One person was killed. He was later inducted into the hall of fame of the Society of Professional Journalists’s local chapter.

He continued to cover the areas he thought were most afflicted by poverty and violence. In 2004, Mr. Johnson interviewed six Ballou Senior High School seniors about living in Washington’s poorest neighborhoods while trying to graduate from school.

“I have gone home and broken down and cried over some of these kids,” Mr. Johnson told the Washington Times. “They don’t have a chance.”

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His first marriage, to the former Madge Williams, ended in divorce, and he married Lori Smith in 2003. They had homes in Washington and Lewes, Del.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Brandon Johnson of Bowie, Md., and Kurshanna Dean of Washington; a stepdaughter, Carolyn Smith of Yonkers, N.Y.; several siblings; and four grandchildren.

He wrote a memoir, “Surviving Deep Waters,” published in 2022.

Throughout his career, Mr. Johnson continued to show up at news conferences and interview people on the street — a reporting role that he found more fulfilling than reading scripts behind an anchor desk.

“That’s where you really earn your money,” Mr. Johnson told the Times in 2004. “I don’t see how you can come to work and every day and just anchor. Boring.”

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