Warner Saunders is a Renaissance Man. His news coverage life has been full, exciting and varied. He's taught public school; he drove a bus; he was the executive director of the Boys Club on the West Side, and he played professional basketball. All of that was before he launched a second career. In the past 40 years, he has earned 20 Emmy Awards as a journalist.
To put Warner Saunders in perspective is to know that he has served as the voice for the voiceless, a champion of the people. His career has spanned the riots that resulted from Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination to having a hunch about a young politician named Barack Obama. He was one of the first to interview Obama and something told him to save the interview. (I wonder what it would be like to watch it now.)
He has had a front-row seat to record history along the way. He came into TV, at ABC, with the late journalist Vernon Jarrett, without a journalism background. He came as a social worker that knew the power of media and what it lacked. Believe it or not, there was a time where there were no black news personalities on television. When the West Side riots occurred after King's death, it was a terrible time for the city. The powers-that-be were trying to calm the storm. This was Saunders' entry into the world of television. It was an "ah-ha" moment for television and proved to be an "ah-ha" moment for television viewers. They realized what they were missing: a black presence and voice on television. Many black journalists were born or given an opportunity, as a result.
So it was the case with Saunders who, along with Vernon Jarrett, hosted a program, For Blacks Only, on ABC. It was a public affairs program that discussed current events and offered the public a viewpoint that was often ignored or forgotten. The television duo engaged the communities with interviews, insights and commentary.
Warner left ABC and went to CBS where he became the public affairs director and the host of a late night show, Common Ground. I was his first producer. It was an exciting time, and this is where Saunders increased his popularity and gave airtime to controversial people and topics. The rule of Common Ground was simple: "No one gets a pass." And he meant it.
My first media job ever, with Warner, was met with what I would now call a lot of "creative tension." And in the process, we created some dynamic shows. You never knew what someone would say, and sometimes the show itself made news because of the exclusive conversations Saunders got. At the time, CBS was the No. 1 station, with Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson as the leading anchors. Common Ground was the only "black show" on air then. What I have come to realize, years later, is that while I was producing a TV program, Warner was producing a person who had media vision and perspective in me. Neither of us were trained journalists, but we were both activists and concerned citizens and knew that our perspectives were important and sometimes exclusive.
Saunders has quite a scope on Chicago history. He has been a first-hand part of it. He saw the political drama in the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago. This is important because downtown news absolutely and totally missed, misinterpreted and underestimated the power and presence of black Chicago and its political prowess.
Saunders went to South Africa for the release of Nelson Mandela after his 27 years in jail for fighting apartheid. Warner was one of the first American journalists to interview him, thanks to the intervention of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Over the years, Saunders has covered Jackson from his days as a community organizer to his presidential bid and afterwards. This would be a fabulous documentary. He probably has more footage on Jackson than any other newsman.
One of the few unknown elements regarding Warner is his work as a mentor and with interns. There are people all over the country, perhaps the world, who worked and interned as freshmen journalists in the making. He ensured that they all had good career advice, and those who strived to be on-air talent he made sure had a tape in hand. For those who took another path in media, he provided perspective and professionalism. Warner has never forgotten where he came from. The community was proud to have a friend on TV and someone who understood.
Saunders' view of the news has been with a community perspective. He became a journalist and rose to the occasion. We became great friends when I started N'Digo, and his advice has been invaluable. He told me what I was doing was important and reminded me of little things that became important. He has never wavered with wonderful advice and I treasure every argument we ever had because the right decision always came from it. He worked hard, made history and he earned the "No. 1" distinction.
Over the years, Saunders has given us quality coverage as he, himself, has become history, as he has watched, recorded and interpreted history in the making along the way. In retrospect, I realize something: I was Warner's producer, but it was he who produced an individual who's passionate about the media's impact and wants to use it to do good -- me.
Thanks, Warner. Bravo!
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