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Former ABC News Anchorman Dies of AIDS Complications

December 21, 1988 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Max Robinson, who became the first black to anchor a U.S. network news show but soon was beset with personal and career problems, has died at 49.

Robinson succumbed to complications of AIDS, said Tonya Swanson, a spokeswoman for Howard University Hospital. A family spokesman, Roger Wilkins, said Robinson had been ill for more than a year and had been bedridden for a month.

Robinson had hoped that his death would highlight the urgency of the AIDS problem, Wilkins said in a statement issued Tuesday on behalf of the family.

″During his battle with the disease, Mr. Robinson expressed the desire that his death be the occasion for emphasizing the importance, particularly to the black community, of education about AIDS and methods of its prevention,″ the statement said.

AIDS is a contagious disease that attacks the body’s immune system, rendering it incapable of resisting other diseases and infections. The chief victims of the incurable disease have been homosexual men and intravenous drug abusers. Health officials estimate that heterosexual contact is responsible for 4 percent of cases.

Robinson in 1978 left Washington television station WTOP, where he had won top ratings as an anchorman for a decade, to join ABC as the first black to anchor a network news show. He co-anchored the ABC Evening News from Chicago with Peter Jennings in London and Frank Reynolds in Washington.

″He made an important contribution to ABC News for which we will always be grateful,″ Roone Arledge, president of ABC News in New York, said in a statement. ″It is tragic to see his life end at such a young age.″

Ronald Townsend, president and general manager of WUSA-TV, successor to WTOP, said: ″Broadcast journalism has lost a strong voice for fairness, equality and human rights.″

″He had great presence on the air,″ said James Snyder, vice president for news for Post-Newsweek Stations, who worked with Robinson.

Snyder and others said pressures on Robinson, a moody man, as a pioneer worked against him.

″When Max went to the network, he was not as successful as he was here,″ said Snyder. ″He had a lot of pressure, pressure from his friends. But he had the opportunity to be the first black network anchorma. He had to take it.″

″There were personal demons he was wrestling with,″ said Gordon Peterson, his former co-anchor here. ″I kind of wish he had stayed here. I don’t think it (working at the network) worked well for him.″

Robinson spoke out frequently on behalf of better treatment and more visibilty for blacks in the media.

In February 1981 he told an audience at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., that the news media was a ″crooked mirror″ through which ″white America views itself.″ He said that ″only by talking about racism, by taking a professinal risk, will I take myself out of the mean, racist trap all black Americans find themselves in.″ Later, he said he did not mean to single out ABC for critcism.

Carl Bernstein, ABC’s Washington bureau chief in 1980 and 1981, said Robinson was deliberately excluded from any decision-making related to the newscast.

″There are those, I believe, in the industry, who were either jealous or had problems with Max,″ agreed Dwight Ellis, head of the National Association of Broadcasters. ″He was a really outspoken man.″

A frustrated Robinson often complained publicly about the network and charged it with racism in a speech at Smith College in February 1981.

After Reynolds’ death in 1983, Jennings was made sole anchor of the newscasts, and Robinson was relegated to weekend anchor stints and news briefs.

In 1984, he joined Chicago television station WMAQ. The following June he entered a hospital specializing in alcohol rehabilitation, suffering from ″emotional and physical exhaustion,″ according to Nick Aronson, director of communications for WMAQ. He never returned to the station and did sporadic free-lance work after that.

″I think one of my basic flaws has been the lack of esteem, not really feeling great about myself, always feeling like I had to do more,″ Robinson said in an interview with The Washington Post last May.

Robinson started his broadcasting career as a disc jockey in his hometown of Richmond, Va. He moved to Washington in 1965.

He is survived by his mother, Doris Robinson Griffin, and stepfather, the Rev. James Griffin, of Norfolk, Va.; four children, Mark, Maureen, Michael and Malik Robinson; two sisters and a brother. Robinson’s marriages to Eleanor Booker and Beverly Hamilton ended in divorce, and a third marriage was annulled.