Published Saturday, June 23, 2012
Next month, the woman who actually beat out Oprah Winfrey for Winfrey’s “dream job” will retire from that very job after 37 years.
While Winfrey ended up doing just fine for herself, it is arguable that the woman she lost out to -- known in earlier years as Monica Kaufman and in her more recent and oh-so-happily-married years as Monica Pearson -- has had not only a huge impact on the millions who came to know her, but an even greater impact in setting a standard in the television news world that will be difficult to match. Although this may be a story about local news, it is every bit as national as Ms. Winfrey.
You see, Pearson was one of the first black women (who was actually first remains a matter of interpretation) to ever anchor a network affiliate news program in the United States. She beat out Winfrey for the position at the nationally recognized juggernaut WSB-TV in Atlanta, generally best known as the most dominate network news affiliate in the entire country. Even in 1974, the station was considered the crown jewel of the South.
One might say: “So what? It’s just another milestone passed and now long forgotten.” But there is a secret about Pearson -- known for her youthful appearance, stylish St. John suits, flamboyant and ever changing hairstyles, and ability to sing (not on air) at a professional level. All of that makes her sensational in her community. What makes Monica Pearson a journalist of national importance is the fact that no one -- and I mean no one -- who knows her has any clue as to what her opinion is on political issues or even what party she supports.
In most newsrooms in America, both on the local and national level, it doesn’t take too long to get a feel for how an on-air personality really feels about certain issues or political candidates. Usually, I would say, those feelings sympathize more with left-of-center issues and Democratic candidates. Let’s face it: We all know where Oprah Winfrey, who arguably did not need to hide her views, stood in the 2008 election. Basically, had she not gone to South Carolina and introduced voters there to a then- Sen. Barack Obama, Obama would still be cooling his heels in the U.S. Senate. Obama insiders can deny it all they want, but Oprah changed the dynamics of the South Carolina Democratic primary and hence the 2008 nomination.
But throughout that historic race, those seated beside her on the air or talking to her in the halls of her station (WSB’s massive complex seems more the size of CNN than a local affiliate) never really knew what Pearson thought about the potentially first African-American president. Her comments and questions on air and off were always to the point, but never showed the slightest hint of where her heart might be or what she might personally be thinking. To this day, likely no one but her husband, a respected former law-enforcement officer, knows how she voted in the Obama-McCain contest.
It must be so very tempting when one has an overwhelming charismatic impact on, and an equally strong trust of, a huge viewership not to let fly a comment here or a glance there that gives a signal to those watching as to what they should do or how they should think. We know that Chris Matthews’ leg tingled when Barack Obama was elected, and we have learned over the years that even our beloved “Uncle Walter” Cronkite meddled in the 1968 presidential race, urging Bobby Kennedy to take on Lyndon Johnson.
And it would seem oh-so-ripe for the nation’s first African-American female anchor to not only use, but even abuse, her position of not only local but national prominence. After all, she had the star power to, and did, interview virtually every politician (save Nancy Pelosi, who blew Pearson off), movie star, recording artist ... you name it ... in the world, for decades. But she never carried an agenda, or gave off any signal of “on-air activism.” There was nothing but shear professionalism that came from this amazing woman.
Oh, yes, no matter where you live in this nation, you need to know about the “Other Oprah.” She brought honor and credibility to a profession that so badly needs it.
Note: This column is dedicated to Robin Roberts of ABC News, who is facing another serious health issue. Monica Pearson was a major inspiration to Robin. We wish Robin a speedy recovery.