[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Let's talk about June 1968 and Robert Kennedy and move forward from there today. What do you remember about that time, and how involved were you at all in that event?
Davis: I wasn't involved at all, except as a reporter, except to cover the local reaction, and we all did that. Everybody in every major city in America, I'm sure, did that. But I think because of the fact that it happened in California and he'd been in the Bay Area just days before the event, we all felt very personal about his murder, and sort of felt that heroes didn't have much of a chance, if you indeed considered him a hero, which most of us growing up with my background in this area, we certainly felt.
Biagi: So your reaction, then, to Bobby Kennedy's assassination?
Davis: It really was a melancholia. When that happened, I can remember exactly where I was when John Kennedy was shot, exactly where I was when I found out that Martin Luther King [Jr.] had been shot, and now this. It was like the third strike, and do you go back to the plate again? Is it really a new ball game, or how do you go from here? So it took a little while to focus, and I was not alone in that. Many people felt that way.
Biagi: As a reporter, your job was to cover Bay Area reaction, that kind of thing?
Davis: Yes, but it was more a melancholia, I think, for the country that this was the way that we as a nation were solving our problems, and if that was our choice, then what was this other stuff about, our belief in democracy and using the democratic process to create change? So no matter where you place yourself publicly as a conduit of information, you have your background to carry with you all the time. Being a black American, my hope had to be in the fact that the system works, and whatever happened to diminish that then diminishes the possibility for my children for the future and so on. So I think it was probably not thought out that well, but that was a contributing factor. So while I realized my job was to report the facts and other people's reaction, there was this background going on inside of me. Of course, the antiwar demonstrations continued.
Biagi: Which you covered quite a bit.
Davis: A lot. An awful lot. They became more and more hostile. The action and reaction of those in authority to people who were protesting became more vigorous. Hard lines were being drawn. Loyalty to country was always the top of the list, depending on, of course, what group you're talking to. So there was all of that going on. Then just the issue of race in all of this continued.
Biagi: Where was the issue of race, would you say, at this time? How was it being addressed?
Davis: The fact that the majority of the people dying in Vietnam were black, the majority of people dying in Vietnam were the uneducated and the poor, and then the internal struggles within the organizations that were trying to do something about it was being splintered. The women's movement was just being born, and the use of drugs was getting heavier and heavier. Things were not very pretty. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So in 1968, then we have our new president, and we go into the decade of 1968 and 1972, the presidencies.
Davis: I think that's the period I was truly referring to, was what happened following '68, when things started to deteriorate a little bit.
Biagi: As a reporter, what kinds of evidence did you see that the country was in a melancholy state that you think it was? Or is that just your reflection now?
Davis: That was my personal perception. I don't know that that was shared by lots of people, but to me, whenever people's reaction to circumstance becomes more extreme, more extreme measures are thought to be okay, to me that's a sign of desperation and some loss of hope, because when you're hopeful, you're willing to try to stick with whatever is going on and work your way through it. But when you feel that nothing's happening, then you want to go and bomb the Bank of America building and all the other kinds of things that started to happen.
Biagi: So in 1970, '71, '72, in San Francisco, what kinds of stories were you covering? Were you still doing general assignment and working for Channel 5?
Davis: Yes. I was there until almost the end of the seventies, '77. In between all of this, and I'm no good today at remembering the dates, but in that era we had the activities of the Black Panther party, we had the Patricia Hearst kidnapping, we had the rise of the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army], we had the free food giveaway connected with the Hearst kidnapping.
Biagi: That would have been about '72, I believe, was Hearst. Wasn't that the issue then?
Davis: I covered that, because I was anchoring the mid-day news program. We covered every day something about that story.
Biagi: What kinds of things?
Davis: All of the progress. There's a lot more here to tell, because we actually had some members of the SLA on our program. We had the rise of Jim Jones and that group.
Biagi: So for somebody who's not from San Francisco and not of this era, you'd almost have to explain to them what that meant, what it meant to cover Patty Hearst or how it started for you.
Davis: I wish I could tell you. There's so much, that I think I'll probably have to go back and refresh my memory. I can only remember the highlights, the highlight of knowing that she'd been kidnapped that that there were black males involved in it. I could remember back to the real fear in black males during the Zebra killings, which was much earlier, when all the black males were stopped and questioned because of this group of men who were killing whites, although they killed black people, too. But basically they were out to kill white people. After the SLA incident and the fact that we knew that these were black males involved, I worried a lot about relatives and friends and so on who might get mistaken and caught up in this.
I remember the negotiations with them through the media, some of them through our station, because the Reverend Cecil Williams had a program on our air and a close tie to KPIX, so we were very tied in to all of that. It's just beginning to come back a little to me.
Biagi: The Symbionese Liberation Army, for people who won't recognize the name SLA, was composed of whom?
Davis: Radicals who wanted to change the system, very left wing, mixed-race group, kidnapped Patty Hearst, wealthy heiress, supposedly to gain money to feed the poor, to do good works, but it never happened. I think that, for me, anyway, their objectives have always been confusing for me to understand. I never quite understood what they were doing. I thought they were such bright, intelligent people, most of them, because of the papers that they wrote, the long recorded messages and speeches that they would leave for us reporters in telephone booths.
Biagi: They would leave tapes for you to pick up?
Davis: Yes, demands.
Biagi: Did you do that?
Davis: I did not personally, but our station was sometimes the target of the calls to receive the messages. Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide [Memorial] Church, which was sort of a home for alternative views of all sorts and a saving base for many young people involved, runways that got involved in drugs, it was a place that parents came to look for their lost children, and because of this reputation, his activities in this area, was seen as a person, sort of a bridge between the alternative culture and [unclear].
Biagi: His church is right downtown.
Davis: Right in the heart of the city. So because of our connection there. He also was a close friend, or at least an acquaintance, and became a close friend to the Hearst family because he tried to negotiate her freedom. I guess my clearest memories—and there are others, and maybe we'll go back and try to do this again—were of the trial itself even after. I'm skipping way in time here. The actual trial itself. That's because we broadcast live reports every single day from the trial, and quite often those reports, in fact, F. Lee Bailey would arrange for a news conference convenient for us in our newscasts.
Biagi: He was defending the SLA.
Davis: No. Patty Hearst. So every day we would carry a report from that trial.
Biagi: Where was the trial?
Davis: The federal building in San Francisco. But prior to that, as I go back, when the Hearst family decided to make its plea for Patty Hearst's release, my co-anchor, a guy named Dave Fowler, knew the Hearsts quite well, so they became ardent viewers of our program, because we often had the latest information. So when Mrs. Hearst decided to make a personal plea for Patty's return, I got a call to come down the peninsula to their house one night and there was this watch of reporters from all over the country, scores of them who hung out near this tree near their driveway, and the Hearsts would come out and give briefings on how they thought—well,
Mr. Hearst would, anyway, often. But when she decided to talk, I got a call from Dave saying, "Come down. Catherine Hearst wants to do an interview with you," and I did.
Biagi: That was the first time you interviewed her?
Davis: That was her first interview. After that, she came out and made public statements, but I did the first one.
Biagi: Where was the house, on the peninsula?
Davis: Yes. I can't remember if it's at Atherton Hillsborough.
Biagi: In that neighborhood.
Davis: Hillsborough. That's it.
Biagi: So what did she say in that interview? Do you remember? Or do you just remember that it took place?
Davis: She was pleading for her daughter's release and asking them not to harm her.
Biagi: So this is in the days really when you could have put that on live. So did you?
Davis: No, it was taped.
Biagi: A taped interview.
Davis: Filmed interview. I guess in those days we were not as happy about—I mean, now you do everything live, but then it was really a special deal.
Biagi: It was expensive and technologically difficult, I think, so people didn't do it often.
Biagi: So then the events at the trial. You remember covering it every day.
Davis: Covering it from a strange point of view, not from the courtroom, but from our show. I mean, talking on the phone with our reporter who was there every day preparing for the first [newscast], because the twelve noon show on Channel 5 [KPIX] was the first newscast of the day. We had the only mid-day news, because that station pioneered—the first noon news in the country was the noon news program at Channel 5. So we were the first news of the day. Sometimes I'd go down just so I could get the feel of it, so I wouldn't lose touch with it, what the real trial was all about, but most of the time it was through the live coverage.
Biagi: Then the food giveaway.
Davis: I remember covering one of those. I still feel this sense of dismay.
Biagi: And the arrangement was? I'm trying to remember in my mind exactly why the—
Davis: The Hearst family had to provide a certain amount of food, and for some reason, and I don't recall why, the Black Muslims were chosen to distribute the food in black communities to poor people.
Biagi: Not just in San Francisco, then? It was the Bay Area?
Davis: All over the Bay Area. It was like a food riot. They would sort of bring in food into a poor neighborhood and stand at the back of a truck and throw it into a crowd, and people would scramble for it. It was very degrading and often turned into real confrontations and fights, because people would scramble for turkeys or whatever. It was just not handled well at all. But the Hearst family donated thousands of dollars that was never, to my memory, quite accounted for.
Biagi: The idea was they would give the food back and then what would happen?
Davis: We'd show on the air that they were actually giving the food. Members of the SLA would see that that condition had been met, and that somehow would lead to her release. It did not, of course.
Biagi: Ultimately, when she was released, where were you and how did that come about? Do you remember? Were you still reporting on the news?
Davis: Still reporting on the news. I'll only tell you the part of it that I covered, and it was sort of anticlimactic. I can only remember—and believe me, there's a lot more to this story, but I'm hitting peaks, because she was living with a woman named Wendy Yokimura, and I actually was there when Wendy was captured, so I must have been there when Patty was captured also in this Bernal Heights community near—I think it was Precita. I think that was the street, near a small park. That was it. She had gone out walking or jogging. We were at the house and picked up Wendy.
Whatever happened that day, I was there, and Wendy Yokimura somehow, I guess in talking with her or in coverage of the way we did it, by the time she was, of course, locked up in Santa Rita, I contacted her or she contacted me, and I tried to do interviews with her, obviously did it. I did it. Because when she was released, she sent me some artwork. She's an artist. I was looking for that the other day. It was a very small, very beautiful ink drawing, I think it was. So there's a lot to that relationship. It must have gone on for a while, to the point where there was a thank-you letter and a piece of art, and there was an interview. I was there at her capture, and I interviewed her in prison and all of that. But I can't recall the rest of it right now.
Biagi: So we move into '72, another election, and we have Watergate going on nationally. What's going on locally in San Francisco of note that you remember through that five years until '77?
Davis: Shirley, this is not a good day. I can't remember. Why don't we turn the tape off for a minute.
Biagi: Sure. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: Let's resume here. We're in about the mid-1970s. First of all, I want to ask you, in 1977, you said you left KPIX to go to KQED. How did that come about?
Davis: As now I can see that it wasn't such an unusual time. Well, no, it was an unusual time. The news business was just going through a change. It was when happy talk was coming in and story lengths were being cut, and reporter option on whether a story was a story was going out the window, and newsrooms were really becoming producer-driven. It wasn't, for me, a very happy time. I had worked in an environment where they sent you out on a story and you went in, you looked over the facts, and if there was news there, you called in and said you had it. If it's not, you say, "Hey, there's nothing here. Let's pull out," and nobody questioned you. Of course, we've evolved into that is not the case anymore.
Biagi: How did that change at that time, then?
Davis: That's the beginning of the consultants, the beginning of the research to determine what people wanted to see versus what they ought to see. That was the beginning of that evolution. I just found it uncomfortable. So there was an opportunity that presented itself. A person I had worked with at Channel 5 called me up and said, "How would you like to do this?"
Biagi: "Do this" meaning?
Davis: Come over and be the anchor for KQED's much touted nightly "newsroom" newscast, which was a challenge, because there, at that point, had not been a woman sole anchor of an evening newscast who's black. Well, not even a woman sole anchor, black or white. Nobody had done it. So it was a real risk.
Biagi: This was a public television station.
Davis: Public television station.
Biagi: Doing an hour's news?
Davis: It was an hour, yes.
Biagi: That was a very aggressive thing for a public station to do as well.
Davis: Yes. Actually, how they described the show, we would go an hour if necessary, if we had an hour of news. If we had thirty minutes of news, we'd do thirty minutes of news. That's how we started. Of course, that didn't last, because that became a programming nightmare, but that was our first charge, was that we would only bring you the news that was worthy of reporting; we would not fill it in with a bunch of stuff that was a waste of your time. I remember saying those words. [Laughter.]
So anyway, I was approached by a man named George Osterkamp, who is now the San Francisco bureau chief for CBS News. I was approached by George Osterkamp to come over and be the anchor of this program. Since it was a pioneering effort and all of that stuff, of course, I was really interested, but I was under contract to KPIX and I still had two years to go on my contract. So I didn't know how I was going to work that out. Well, as they say, boys will be boys. At that time, the station manager for Channel 9 [KQED] was a person who had been the station manager at Channel 5 [KPIX] previously. These Osters get mixed up, but the station manager was Bill Osterhaus, and my news director was George Osterkamp. So it gets to be a little confusing when people try to remember that. Anyway, Bill Osterhaus and George Reising, who was the station manager at Channel 5, somehow met, got together, and decided that I could go and work at KQED there as long as I continued to do this prime time minority current affairs program that I'd
been hosting, for them at KPIX. I think what they did not want at that time was to lose presence. Needless to say, I was the only black woman working at their station KPIX. [Laughter.]
Biagi: What was the name of your program at Channel 5?
Davis: It was called "All Together Now." I must say they gave it good resources, it had good placement, it was on Saturday nights at 7:30, and it was a very highly rated, well-received program, and I was very happy for the opportunity to do it. So I accepted the job at Channel 9, which was truly a forty-hour work week, and I agreed to give as much as twenty hours a week to the KPIX program. And that's what I did. It worked out because my hours at Channel 9 started at noon, and I worked from noon to 8:00, 8:30, and I could do my Channel 5 work in the mornings. So it sounds like a lot now, but it didn't seem like very much then.
Biagi: Just a long day every day during the week, then.
Davis: Yes, but we grouped the hours so that I would sometimes work six—hardly more than three days a week. We split the hours, so I'd start earlier and do something.
Biagi: What time did the show go on at Channel 9?
Davis: It was on at 7:00 or 7:30, various times. It jumped around—7:00, 7:30, 8:00. It depends. It varied.
Biagi: So you had essentially sixty hours of work a week.
Biagi: On Saturday did you work at all, except for the show?
Davis: Sometimes I did some of those hours for Channel 5 on Saturdays, because we did an entertainment segment on there, and ofttimes we did our interviews. In fact, some of those hours would end up after I left Channel 9. If I was doing, say, James Brown at the Stone or something, I'd go there for a show that started at nine, record some of the live performance or maybe do the interview before or after the performance. So it worked out. It was a busy life.
Biagi: What about your family at this point? Where is your family?
Davis: Both my children are now out of high school, and my daughter is, at the end of that time, in college in Los Angeles, and my son is away from home. He was an airline steward by then.
Biagi: So those responsibilities were taken care of.
Davis: Yes. I had some other relatives who lived with me, younger people, but they basically were just people we were trying to give a safe haven to. So it was okay.
Biagi: And Bill's still at Channel 2?
Biagi: Let's move into the era of Gerald Ford, because we're at 1978 now. If you'd like to comment on your exposure—
Davis: Actually, it was before '78, what I'm thinking of, because I was working at Channel 5, and I was one of the anchors at Channel 5. It was during Gerald Ford's visit to San Francisco and our station somehow got—because Westinghouse is very big on governmental affairs, politics, community issues nationally as a company, the president of the company then, Don McGannon, was a person who did a lot of programs on civil rights issues and issues of interest to communities.
Anyway, we had a Washington bureau that was pretty influential, and a lot of commentators, Rod McLeish, those kinds of voice people, so we had pretty good connections. Somehow we got the White House to agree to a half hour exclusive interview with people on our station, and the anchors were chosen to do that interview. So fellow anchor Ron Majors, myself, and Rollin Post were selected to go and set up at the St. Francis Hotel. Boy, we had three or four cameras, shoots. It was really a big deal. The president was making a speech, I guess there in the hotel, was staying there anyway, so we did our interview with him, which was very interesting, and as he was leaving, he started to go out the door, turned around and came back, because he had not shook hands with me on his way out. Everybody started smiling. He turned around. Ron always said that I got these extra points for being brown. [Laughter.] So he came back, because we were taking pictures, of course, as he was doing all these handshakes, and he hadn't shaken my hand. So he came back and he shook hands with me, and we chatted for a few seconds.
He turned at the elevator and went down, and we all went over to the window to watch. Of course, when we went to the window to watch was when Sara Jane Moore fired the shot at him, so we were watching out the window, yelling and screaming with the action, and we could see them push him into the limousine and speed out of there. So after that, they all teased me. They said I had given him the black handshake. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Oh, no, no! You don't want to carry that.
Davis: I know, but that was the word around from the boys in the office.
Davis: Double entendre.
Biagi: But the reporters went and covered that, and you—
Davis: We had reporters down on the street, of course, to catch his exit. The only thing we could do was rush back to the station then and get ready to go on the air with the story.
Biagi: So you were still on duty. San Francisco also had a mayor named George Moscone, who had an interesting history in San Francisco. I wanted you to reflect on his history in San Francisco a little bit before you talk about the incidents in the late seventies.
Davis: George Moscone was a classic liberal, and he was a personal friend. Because I was covering government and politics and so on, you got to meet him, but he was a guy that was hard to remain formal with. He was a back-slapper, just a guy who really loved life and had an awful lot of fun. Our daughters were classmates at the Convent of Sacred Heart in San Francisco, and, in fact, graduated from high school together. So for the school activities and so on, father-daughter dance, my husband and George, of course, were people that shared some thoughts.
Biagi: He was a state senator before he was mayor.
Davis: Right. In any case, we were friends because the girls were friends, and so when they graduated from high school, they took a vacation to Hawaii together and all of that. In any case, my daughter did not want to go to college. Neither of the girls wanted to go to college. Their daughter wanted to go travel in Europe and mine didn't know what she wanted to do. So they were helpful in getting her a job in city government, and she thought she wanted to go into work in the juvenile justice field, so she went to work in the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, and that's where she was working, trying to find out what she wanted to do with her life. It was a wonderful job. She enjoyed it a lot. So I saw them a lot because now my daughter was working in his office, and we'd been friends all the time anyway.
On the fatal day of his assassination—and that's what I call it—of his death, I was home getting ready to go to work, and the phone rang, and my daughter was on the phone and she was hysterical. She couldn't even tell me what had gone on. Her office was on the floor down from his, but she had just been upstairs, not in his inner office, but in the outer office doing some paperwork. I think she was on her way back to return some papers when this shooting took place. The shooting took place. She was so torn apart that I remember I was starting to put on my makeup to go to work and I never finished it. I just stopped, got my purse, could not decide whether to go to city hall, where my daughter was, or to go to my office, where my job was. So I decided on a bridge between them. City hall was on my way to Channel 9, so I stopped just to see if she was okay, because by now we knew that he was dead and that Harvey Milk was dead, one of the city supervisors. I stopped and tried to calm her as best I could, and explained to her that as bad as all of this was for her right now, that she ought to try to call her friend and to offer whatever comfort she could.
Then I went on to work to try to prepare for what would we do, how would we cover this story. I remember that was a very difficult meeting, and I think in public television one of the reasons why sometimes it's so very good is because there's an awful lot of thought given to direction and ideas are debated and shot down. But in the end, you agree on what your program is going to be, and you go out to try to do that. We put together a very fine program, and I think the hardest thing for me, of course, was to try to remain composed for the program. As with public television and the way it is so often technically, at least our station technically, if there was a waterloo, it was always going to be something technical. I remember we were trying to do a telephone interview with Dianne Feinstein, and the machinery kept not working, almost to the point that it was like comic relief.
Biagi: Who became the acting mayor.
Davis: Yes. But she had been the person who had broke the news to the press, because she was the president of the board of supervisors. On this particular day, of course, the board had to vote on making her acting mayor.
Biagi: Let's stop for a second.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: If you could talk to me about what ensued after the—
Davis: Write down Richard Nixon's name, because I have a Richard Nixon story to tell.
Biagi: You can tell me the Richard Nixon story now.
Davis: He was president; that's all I know.
Biagi: So '68?
Davis: Somewhere in there. I do remember when he made—all Republicans stopped at the St. Francis. He was in for a political speech, and his wife and two daughters accompanied him on this trip. This was just the way things were in those days. The women reporters were assigned to cover the women, except that Mrs. Nixon did not like television, so there was a tea for us ladies of the press at the St. Francis. [Laughter.] I'll never forget walking into this grand room with this French sofa, and Mrs. Nixon sitting in the middle and the two daughters on either side, very proper, and we all came in with our notepads. I'm a television reporter, but this is the best I'm going to get! [Laughter.] We were allowed to take still pictures, but no cameras. So we had our ladies' briefing.
So after the ladies' briefing, there was a reception. It was not a press event, but I had heard about it from a social friend. President Nixon liked things rather grand, so in this one room there was an area that was roped off with these stanzas, so the plan was that the president would come behind these stanzas and he looked like to me, whatever he had on almost looked like a uniform, behind the stanzas, and people could go by and greet him. So I showed up. It wasn't supposed to be a television deal, but I showed up. So then I asked one of the many people traveling with him, "Could we just get in and get some pictures?" I remember it was an evening event. "I'm assigned to this, and I really just have to get something." You know the story reporters tell. Well, once in the room, of course, I started yelling, "Mr. President, good to see you! Good to see a Californian in the White House!" [Laughter.] Of course, this was polite patter, but I got him to respond, and then he felt the need to make small talk, so I got a story!
Biagi: Great! How did you feel at the tea? Were there a lot of you at the tea?
Davis: Oh, no. Mildred Hamilton was a reporter writing. I think she worked for the Examiner. I guess the Examiner, the Chronicle, the major dailies, and there weren't many women in television, so I doubt if there was even a dozen. Maybe six or seven of us who came to the tea.
Biagi: So tea with Pat Nixon and her daughters. [Laughter.]
Davis: Actually, we had tea, then were shown into the room where they were [unclear].
Biagi: Oh, my. That's quite interesting. Was that your only experience with the Nixons?
Davis: Oh, no, there are others. I'll have to go back later. But that one was a cute one.
Biagi: At that time there had been separation. There were women reporters and there were male reporters. Were there other incidents in your career as a reporter, that time or other times, when you were told that just the women reporters could do this and men reporters could do that?
Davis: Not by the station, but by people who were planning events.
Biagi: Was there ever a time when you weren't allowed to cover something?
Davis: Not because of gender. I cannot remember. No, I can't remember. I remember having difficult times covering things because of gender, but not being barred.
Biagi: Such as? Do you remember?
Davis: Oh, yes. Lots of times at demonstrations, you know, being pushed around, being not allowed—
Biagi: You told me at Berkeley you had that experience.
Davis: That happened a lot, but Berkeley was the worst one. Being questioned more closely than the men in coming into a door, being asked to leave because it was time for the press conference to begin. Things of that sort.
Biagi: Oh, really?
Biagi: You mean they thought you weren't a reporter?
Davis: Oh, yes, definitely. [Laughter.] Definitely.
Biagi: Even though you had a camera?
Davis: Definitely. I'm sure I told you my worst story of all, but it was more to do with race than to do with—it had to do with race. It didn't have anything to do with being a woman. In fact, I still don't like this woman, so I won't mention her name, but I've had many opportunities to even the score, believe me. [Laughter.] I was doing a big charity event at the Fairmont Hotel, a big fashion event, and I came into the room with this photographer, side by side.
Biagi: You were a television reporter?
Davis: Television reporter. I came in with the photographer, camera on the shoulder, walking through the room and trying to find the person in charge. As we walked in, I started to approach the woman who I was told was the person in charge, and she looked at the two of us, and looked at me and asked me if I was there to do the ironing. I said, "I would hardly bring a television camera along to iron with." I'll never forget that.
Biagi: That's not one you forget easily.
Davis: No. No. That tells you about people. She never understood why I never covered any of her other events. [Laughter.] Never.
Biagi: Little did she know. Well, moving right along from that now, the events that followed George Moscone's assassination in San Francisco and Harvey Milk, were you covering that for public television [KQED]?
Davis: Yes. Of course, that was the whole massacre at Guyana that followed just a few days later. Or was it before? I cannot recall. I don't know which was first. They were a few days apart. I just don't know which was first. I think it followed.
Biagi: So it was a San Francisco event for—
Davis: Same month. November. End of November.
Biagi: Because Jim Jones was a Bay Area person.
Davis: Definitely. Jim Jones had adopted me.
Biagi: Is that right?
Davis: For reasons now—well, I began to understand more when I found out many things about him, but I did the mid-day show and I did a lot of stories about people in need and all of that. I'll never forget. I was doing a story about a child that they'd flown up from Mexico who needed a certain kind of surgery. I can't remember what the problem was, but there was no money for this surgery. I read the news story, showed the news tape or film, and got off the air, started to walk out of the studio, and there's this delegation of people there. One of them was Jim Jones. They said they'd just heard my story on the news. Remember this is a thirty-minute news show, so this was quick action. They wanted to be the first to contribute the first $500 for the surgery for this child. I didn't know anything about him. I thought this was really nice. So then I wrote them a thank-you note, and after that I started getting regular calls and regular mail and all this from his church, and with regular invitations to come there.
In that same period of time, I had been looking for a housekeeper prior to this. I had hired this woman. She had not worked for me very long, but she was a nice lady. I remember one Sunday we finally decided to go to this church, and I was so shocked and surprised to find that my housekeeper was in the hierarchy of this church. But one visit there was enough to put up the red flag for me. You had to be searched going in. They even searched the diapers on babies going into this church. I couldn't figure out why the paranoia. But the pursuit continued, and then he was made a member of the Human Rights Commission, so then I sometimes covered that event.
Biagi: The city's Human Rights Commission.
Davis: Right. So the woman, Mrs. Glover, who was working for me, I then started to talk to her about this, and I found that not only did she go there, but she spent her weekends sometimes traveling by bus as far as Los Angeles or Fresno or something, where they'd go to evangelize, Jim Jones and People's Temple. So she worked for me until the time of Guyana, and she left. She went with him. This was before the deaths. I knew she had gone someplace, but I didn't know a lot about where she was or anything else. But she had found a friend who then came to work for me to take her place, also a member of the church. My former housekeeper had been on the security force for People's Temple. So then the new woman, Mrs. Johnson, started to tell me little bits and pieces about how you had to sign over your property, your house, and all of this to the church. I became very, very cautious about the whole thing.
One more incident before the Guyana thing. I mentioned the Reverend Cecil Williams at Glide Church, which was the center of lots of activity. I remember there was one big concert that Glide was putting on to raise money for their free food program, and the entertainer Marvin Gaye, who I knew quite well, was to perform there, and I had worked to help to persuade him to do this benefit. I was the emcee of the program that day. So we all met up—it was a program at the Cow Palace—to go to this event. Cecil was a very controversial person, so there was really some doubts about selling out the Cow Palace, and they needed to, so Jim Jones had come along and offered to provide security for the Cow Palace performance. He showed up at the church with maybe six or seven busloads of people, these very militaristic guys who then were on the doors of the church and supposedly guarding Jim Jones and all of this stuff, and it was very scary, especially when I saw one of them open their suitcase and there was a gun inside. I went to Cecil
and said, "I am scared of these guys. They have weapons." Well, Cecil didn't know they had weapons, he said, so there were some words between him and Jones. Anyway, the thing happened and the concert went on for this very weird evening. But that's when I learned that they were armed. So now you get these people who have these disciplines, who are doing funny things like giving him all their worldly goods, including their home and property, and travels around with armed folks. But still I was shocked at what happened in Guyana, the deaths of those hundreds of people.
What came out afterwards in covering this story, the hierarchy of the church started to fight, and we would have on our Channel 9 show various members of the sect who wanted to tell their side of the story. One of them one day, as we were sitting, talking, preparing to go on the program, told me that my former housekeeper, Mrs. Glover, used to bring all of my garbage to the church for them to go over it. That's how they knew so much about me. I could not believe that! I thought that only happened in movies. I said that to him. "You're lying. Nobody would do that." He said, "Oh, no." Jim Jones was supposed to be psychic and could look in the future and could tell you things about yourself. Well, this was one of the ways they did this. [Laughter.] That was really scary.
Davis: That was very frightening to know that I had been—and a nice black woman, older woman from Stockton, whom I liked a lot.
Biagi: Did she die in Guyana?
Davis: Yes. She had no relatives. He chose people like that. Nobody knows what happened to her, but there would be no way for me to tell.
Biagi: You didn't hear any more from her?
Davis: I don't think they ever found out the names of all of the people, nearly nine hundred people. But I was told by the people, one of the men, that she died.*
Biagi: Jimmy Carter.
Davis: Like 90 percent of people my age who were around when Jimmy Carter let us all know he was going to be the president of this country, I met him at a—I was living in Oakland Hills, and I met him at a small house party. He, of course, did what he always does. He walked up to me and he said, "My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for president of the country. I want to give you this pin, and I want you to keep it, because one day it's going to be valuable." [Laughter.] And I looked at him and laughed.
Biagi: The pin was a—
Davis: It was a Carter pin. I think it was "Carter in '76." Was that the year? Whatever the year was. It was "Carter" and the year. I took this pin. In those days we wore skirts long to the floor, and I had this leopard-colored corduroy skirt that I loved, so I put it in the pocket of this skirt. Well, the reason this story came to mind is that not too long ago, since I never give away anything,
* The followers of Jim Jones took poison.
I kept thinking, "One of these days (I wish I'd kept it a little longer) leopard print is going to come back." You look out there now in 1992, everything is leopard! [Laughter.] "It's going to come back," I kept saying, keeping this skirt. So not long ago I decided to give it away; it was last year. I went in the pocket, and what was in there, except the button, this pin. It wasn't like a campaign button; it was a gold pin with the name "Carter" and the year. So it wasn't like a regular—
Biagi: It must have been '76.
Davis: Yes. A very nice, little, small pin. And there it was in the pocket. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You did save it.
Davis: I did save it, not intentionally. That wasn't the end. This is the reason this is all coming to mind, throwing all this stuff away. Going through the jewelry I had, later on Jimmy Carter was back in San Francisco. Now I'm doing the noon news. Jimmy Carter is a guest on our show. What does he bring but a peanut necklace! [Laughter.] It was an actual peanut dipped in gold.
Biagi: One of the highlights of your wardrobe! [Laughter.]
Davis: On a little chain, and it was in this old jewelry box. I said, "Gee whiz! A president that goes around giving you peanut necklaces." [Laughter.]
Biagi: You saved that, too?
Davis: Not again on purpose, but there it was. So, anyway, he was an accessible president, I must say. Maybe then there weren't as many opportunities for politicians to appear on television, and so when ten minutes of time was offered, as you could sometimes get on our noon news program, as much as that if you were an important guest, people took advantage of it.
Biagi: Did Rosalyn [Carter] ever come on the program?
Davis: Oh, yes. Separately, not together.
Biagi: Was she wearing a peanut necklace?
Davis: [Laughter.] I don't remember that. But I looked and said, "What is this silly thing?" And then I remembered. That was my thank-you gift.
Biagi: Another person who became president, but had his beginnings here in Sacramento, was Ronald Reagan.
Davis: Oh, yes.
Biagi: So during his years in politics, did you cover him in Sacramento and in San Francisco or primarily in San Francisco?
Davis: Primarily in San Francisco, but I came up here quite often to do stories, and that's because we were—I told you in the beginning my story of how I got my job was because of Nancy Reynolds. So Nancy was still very close to her old newsroom pals, so we got special treatment. In fact, through Nancy I was invited maybe four or more times for either lunch or dinner with the Reagans.
Biagi: At their house?
Davis: At their house, which was fun.
Biagi: In East Sacramento.
Davis: Yes. That was fun. I can remember at least the last dinner that I attended, and that was sort of a special evening because it was near the end of his term, having dinner and then going downstairs to the basement and watching him run his toy trains. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Is that right? Did he have a big toy train set?
Davis: Oh, yes, a big toy train set. He loved it, and that's what he'd do after dinner, so I'm told. I only had that privilege once.
My other special kind of little Reagan story was one day after a lunch that Mrs. Reagan hosted, we were all invited to pile in our cars. There weren't that many of us. In fact, I rode over with her and Nancy, because I was with Nancy. Came with her over to the capitol, because it was the day that she filled the governor's jellybean jar. [Laughter.] So we got a big bag of jellybeans and we all came over to his office and we went to his desk and we watched Nancy refill the jellybean jar.
Biagi: These are important stories you're covering! [Laughter.] I'll tell you, stories of national moment.
Davis: [Laughter.] I know. She didn't trust anybody else to do that, so that was one of her duties that she did.
Davis: It wasn't like taking the press along. We were a smaller press corps, and you were able to do things like that, you know. Of course, I didn't report on that. That was just one of those little moments.
I think the story the next time I came, she was very high on—I think it was a grandparents program, and she had grandmothers, grandparents. She gave a lunch in her back yard for some of the volunteers to launch that program. So we did very heavy stories. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Because of Nancy and your access, was there insight, do you think, that you gained of the Reagans that you wouldn't have had otherwise?
Davis: I think from the beginning it's held true to now, everybody knows it, that they're just a very close couple and really seem to enjoy one another. You know the whole story about her being very protective, I mean, just the jellybeans tell you a lot. She truly took care of him. I think a lot of what we see publicly is the real relationship.
Biagi: Were there controversial times, times you had to cover controversy that surrounded them at all?
Davis: Actually, no. When you think back on it—well, that's not true. Later on I do remember coming up one day to do a story, because I was at Berkeley the first day that they used pepper gas
to break up the demonstrations there and had been bombarded with this stuff, and was really fearful. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what's in pepper gas; still don't. But I know it was terrible. It burned your skin. When you teared, of course, that just made it worse. So I had been at Berkeley when they had dropped the pepper gas. There was a news conference up here, because Governor Reagan had okayed that. We had to find out why, why would he do this to students and the rest of us there. I think I was a little hostile that day.
Generally, the news conferences that the governor would conduct—maybe they still are—were very civil in those times, and most people were very polite. So you didn't have a lot of the screaming. You held your hand up and you waited your time for him to call on you. It wasn't yelling and screaming out.
Biagi: Did you ever feel in that relationship or in the Moscone relationship a difficulty separating your personal knowledge of somebody or your personal relationship with somebody in the news from your job as a reporter?
Davis: Actually not. Now I'm friends with people who are in politics, and I always say at the beginning of the relationship, I remind people down the road that, "You know what my job is. Let's be friends, but you know what my job is. Don't tell me things that you think are not for public consumption, because I'm not making deals with you." I think you can have a normal relationship with people without learning and prying into their most intimate secrets. I do remember, with Moscone, there being a story on background that everybody knew, but in those days sort of—and in stories today that are like that, nobody would print or say. I think it had a lot more to do with the office than the person. They were personal kinds of stories that now we see bandied around in presidential politics, stories about their personal conduct and so on. No, I didn't report those stories any more than other reporters. They didn't report them either. So whether they had a personal relationship or not, there were just certain kinds of things we shied away from doing.
Biagi: Has there ever been a time when you think you let that affect you?
Davis: You mean the personal relationship, where I held back news?
Davis: I don't remember ever holding back anything that I knew, if I had the facts on it, not something I suspected. But if I had the facts on it—
Biagi: Has anybody ever come to you and asked you not to use a story as a personal favor?
Davis: Oh, no. I'm fortunate to that degree. I would really hate for someone to do that. Unless you mean as a unit, like at the station, I do remember there were times, for instance, during the Patty Hearst days, "Back off that." There have been times when information has come out that the authorities may say, "Can you not report this until we do X, Y, and Z?" That has been more of an administrative decision than a personal decision. But, yes, that's happened.
Biagi: Have you ever had anybody appeal to you personally? Say they've been interviewed or you've done a story, and they would say to you, "I believe this is going to cost personal harm. You can't do this story. Please don't put it on the air." Have you had people plead with you after you've reported on a story, not to run it? Or go to your news director and said—
Davis: The only times I can remember there being this cautionary atmosphere was during the Hearst kidnapping. I don't want to say something that's not true. All I remember is that there were often periods when, through the FBI and others, we were cautious about what we reported.
Biagi: But nobody has ever called you and said, "If you put this on the air, I'm going to kill myself," or, "My mother's going to kill herself," or, "We're going to sue the station"?
Davis: Yes, I've had that happen, sue the station.
Biagi: What's your response?
Davis: "Sue!" [Laughter.]
Biagi: Have you ever been threatened?
Davis: Yes. You're going to laugh at this, because I cannot recall what I was reporting on, because I tried to also put this—but I have had several incidents. During the Patty Hearst kidnap time, there was a threat on my daughter's life, which caused me to have to change residence and change my lifestyle. So there was that. Lots and lots of hate mail during the Angela Davis trial and the Marin County Courthouse shooting where a judge and several other people died. San Quentin, the whole shooting, killing, whatever you call it, incident. A lot of that had to do with the fact that my name was Belva Davis, and there was an Angela Davis, and Angela Davis had a mysterious sister who lived somewhere in the Bay Area, but nobody knew who she was. A lot of people thought I was Angela Davis' sister. So that caused me to get a lot of mail.
Then the next thing that happened that was kind of weird, I was working at Channel 9, and I tell you, I cannot recall what the topic was and why I was getting these threats, but finally— the police said this. I don't know how it happened. But somebody had put some sort of sharp instrument in my tire, and it was on the driver's side, and the police said it was purposely put there. I was getting threats at that time, but I don't know why I was being threatened. Because I got off work after dark, I never thought much about it. My car was parked in the parking lot, had my name on my parking place. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Gosh. Didn't make it hard to find you, did it?
Davis: No. I became a little bit more cautious after that. I wish I could remember what they were mad at me about. But I know I was getting death threats. Well, not—just that they were going to get me. I've just never paid very much attention to those things, because there are so many people out there. During that same time there was this poor guy, but he was considered rather dangerous, who use to call me up and tell me that I was broadcasting through his back molar, and it was getting so loud that he couldn't stand it, would I please lower my voice. He finally one day showed up at the station, and he was out of it, you know. He really thought that I was transmitting. He said he couldn't sleep because I wouldn't stop talking. So you had all of that. So I had to just throw all of that stuff away.
Then one of my goody-two-shoe things, I was doing a lot of prison stories for a while, and prisoners would write. Everybody on the air gets that. One day one of these guys that had been in for manslaughter and rape showed up at the station and kept showing up after he got out of jail. That was kind of scary.
Biagi: In this instance, it seems that broadcast reporters have a different relationship with their audience than print reporters, do you think?
Davis: Oh, yes, because you're visible. They can see you.
Biagi: Did you get a lot of mail?
Davis: Oh, yes, a lot of mail. A lot of strange mail.
Biagi: So that's part of the job in dealing with your audience.
Biagi: Moving to the eighties in San Francisco, a lot is happening. The social culture in San Francisco is changing. The issues of all the people that Cecil Williams takes in, his whole movement in San Francisco has always been a real factor in San Francisco's history. So I would like you to talk to me a little bit about your relationship to him and what you feel his role is in that city.
Davis: It started out as a very contentious relationship. I covered him during the San Francisco State riots and other civil rights demonstrations. He came to the city at a time when we were in turmoil over all of these things on campuses all around the area, and he'd been a leader with the black students' movement at State. I remember going down to do my first interview with him, and he was going on and on about social ills and the racist society we're living in. I can remember to this day, because we laughed about it, in mid-sentence as he was going into this big oratory about rights and wrongs of government and so forth, I stopped him and said, "What has all this got to do with God?" And, of course, the conversation stopped. He said it was like I'd done that [demonstrates] to him.
Biagi: Hit him.
Davis: Hit him. It turned out to be a very good interview, but I just thought he was a bit much, because he was unlike any other black minister I had ever seen.
Biagi: In what way?
Davis: The first thing he did at Glide was to remove all of the religious symbols from the church, to bring in the Glide Change Band and the choir, dancing on the altar, a light show, and all the psychedelic stuff. So it was a bit much, you know. He embraced, and still does, all lifestyles, alternative and otherwise. Over the years I became a devoted volunteer, especially the hunger program. I go down and work in the kitchen, serving food to the hungry, because I've just found that that was the one place you could go, no questions asked. If you want to stand in that line that goes several blocks long more than once to eat, you can. It was just available without a trial or a test. It was a sense of really giving. Whatever you were doing wrong was your problem. My problem was to put the food on the table. However you misused it became your problem with your maker, sort of was the attitude at Glide. I found that very comfortable. I'm a Congregationalist, anyway. You know what that means.
Biagi: What does it mean to you?
Davis: Sort of anything goes, as long as it says Protestant. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Even though your kids went to Catholic school.
Davis: Yes. You know that we're an amalgamation of all of these various Protestant sects. Anyway, Cecil and I have been friendly and friends throughout.
Biagi: And he's quite a controversial figure.
Davis: Oh, yes.
Biagi: So has there ever been a time when that friendship has been tested?
Davis: Oh, of course.
Biagi: As a reporter, you had to test it?
Davis: As a reporter? Not as a reporter, because he's not controversial to that degree. I mean, questioning, yes. But the best you can come up with about him is his acceptance of behaviors that you might find not in line with your own in the sense of right and wrong. But they've not had any true scandals. There was one incident where I think his brother, who was in charge of some of the bookkeeping for the monies for the city, ran into a wall, but he immediately fired his brother. His brother was out of the congregation, out of the church for about four years before he allowed him to come back. So it was very decisive and very quick action, so what can you say? So there's been no scandal like that. I mean, you raise eyebrows to find drag queens sometimes at the altar leading things. So that bothers you, but that's nothing scandalous. [Laughter.]
Biagi: [Laughter.] In San Francisco, it's—
Davis: I think they serve a very needy population, and I look at Cecil and his wife Jan Mirakatani quite often and wonder where do they get their energy. How do they manage to live on the edge like that? Their crack cocaine program, they just had a conference on that. They're really a leading community in dealing with crack cocaine and its effect on families and so forth. They have a lot of innovative programs that are now getting a lot of national recognition and serving as models. I look at the government. At their first conference, they didn't even apply for a government grant, and Bill Bennett (national drug czar), of all people, was in San Francisco and came there, and went back to Washington and sent them a check for $50,000, and then told them to fill out the paperwork for it. You know, "Fill out the paperwork. We will give you this. We have granted you this money." So you can't find a lot wrong.
Biagi: How do you feel as a reporter, as a journalist? You do quite a bit of volunteering. You do work at Cecil's place. What else do you do?
Davis: I'm over at St. Anthony's.
Biagi: Which is a—
Davis: It's a feeding center. When I go to Glide, I leave, it's a happy experience. People are poor there, but there's still a sense of hope there. A lot of the people eating there are single mothers with kids, who can afford a house, but can't afford a meal every day, so they come there to eat. It's a multi-racial group. It's women, children, and adults. Mostly at St. Anthony's it's single men who are truly on the street, and they don't have as much money or whatever, but I know the quality of food is nothing like what I serve at Glide. So I'm often depressed when I leave there.
Biagi: You have a regular basis that you do that?
Davis: I do it when I can.
Biagi: What else are you involved in? You've got to list them here, because otherwise they'll never be listed anywhere, probably. How would anybody know?
Davis: In terms of physically going and doing things, I do that. The rest of it—
Biagi: Let's talk about associations and things like that, that you are a part of or connected with in some way.
Davis: I've given many years to something called the Black Filmmakers' Hall of Fame. The only thing I dislike about the organization is its name. I started to work on it because I was convinced, after some seminar I went to, that people need to see good reflections of themselves in mass media, in particular in something as popular as film. Blacks are the largest consuming group proportionally of films in America, and yet our image in film nowhere reflected our diversity or the contributions or the real skills and talents of black Americans. This organization was founded to document the history and to deal with the stereotypes that Hollywood had left us with, and we started to work on that in the early seventies. Of course, everything has changed. We take a small amount, if not a large amount, of credit for some of the movement that we've seen, because what happened is that we could lobby, we could write, and we could protest on behalf of performers who could not do it for themselves.
I was in a unique position, because while working with that organization, I also am very active with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and I head their equal employment opportunities unit and co-chair a committee with the Screen Actors' Guild in the same area. So I was able to put this community base work together with the union work, getting my information from the community base group about what was wrong, bringing it to the union table, and as the co-chair of this group meeting both with TV and film producers and directors, articulate those concerns and outline areas for improvement, sometimes even negotiate letters of understanding.
For instance, in daytime soaps, when there were no blacks on daytime soaps, we spent several years working in that area and met with the actual producers and writers and directors of major soap operas, talked about what our problems were, showed them why they should improve, gave them statistical data about who watched and who purchased products, especially the kind they were trying to sell. It was amazing to me that these smart, bright people either decided to lie and say they hadn't made these connections or truly had not made these connections. I have no idea which.
Biagi: What kind of arguments would they give you?
Davis: They just hadn't thought about it.
Biagi: When you say "we," who is this we?
Davis: This co-group of people from the Screen Actors' Guild and AFTRA. We would come together. There's a woman in New York named Lois Davis, who is the Eastern chair, and we have a Hispanic guy in Chicago who is the Midwest chair.
Biagi: Is there a title for this group?
Davis: It's called the Equal Employment Opportunities Committee. Then we had an Asian woman (Sumi Haru) in Los Angeles, and then all of our staff people. Through the staff, they would arrange and set up and we conferred. Even twice along the way, we held conferences in Washington and met with FCC commissioners and met with [Congressman Edward] Markey and all sorts of other influential people to explain this problem, outline it. In fact, we were the ones who, I think, convinced Congressman Markey to use his influence and not allow the FCC to abandon its practice of counting the number of minorities working in the field. Truly, when we met with the congressman, he had not understood the importance, the real importance of that number. He said, "If you're not getting work, you can file a grievance with the Civil Rights Commission," and all of this. You can't do anything without statistical data that shows you've been excluded, you know, in hard numbers that are believable.
Anyway, so those are all battles I've taken on over the years in conjunction with this, but it's all fed into this first interest with this film group.
Biagi: How did you get involved with the film group?
Davis: Actually, having been in radio, I knew a lot of people in the entertainment business, and I heard their constant gripes and complaints. Having worked with the black press, I also knew a lot about the prejudices they thought they were experiencing. So another television reporter, a guy named Sonny Buxton, put together a TV program on the history of blacks in film for Channel 7, and out of that program, a group at the Oakland Museum decided to start a program to deal with this.
Biagi: This was about what year now?
Davis: This was about 1973 or '74. '73, I think. So they put this program together to establish this thing. They thought it was going to be a one- or two-year thing, just something to draw attention to the problem, inducting people into the hall of fame. They did it as though they were only going to do it for two years, because the first couple of years you should see the list of people they inducted. I went to that first program at the Paramount Theater.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: So we're in Oakland and we're in '73 or so. The first program, you said, was an embarrassment. Why was it an embarrassment?
Davis: They were not embarrassed by it; I was embarrassed by it. I know they'll hate it when they find out that I say I was embarrassed by it, because it was a fine program and it had really wonderful people, but I was embarrassed by its lack of production. If you're going to do something about the entertainment business, then it ought to be entertaining, and this was simply a program that—I don't know how you'd describe it. With very little flair. The curtain was never opened. They would walk in front of the curtain, pick up their reward, and go back and sit down, and that was it.
So I called the woman who was in charge of it and offered to produce the program for the next year. I'd never produced a program like this in my life, but I could see it in my head that this had great possibilities.
Biagi: Did this have anything to do with the beauty contests that you had previously produced? [Laughter.]
Davis: No, no. This was totally different. This was totally different, because here now we're going to deal with real people, real heroes, real stars, people who know what's right and what's wrong. It was during one of those wonderful periods of our lives when Bill and I were sharing our house with another good friend who worked at the ABC station in town, and he was foot loose and fancy free, so he joined me in this odyssey, and we decided we were going to produce this program, and we did. So we just set the stage for almost what is still the norm for the program.
Biagi: So the '73 show was much better.
Davis: Stage sets, we brought in entertainment, we hired an orchestra. I mean, we did the things one would do, give you vignettes, and got people who knew those being honored, to fly up from L.A. We persuaded Sidney Poitier to come, and that really made the organization, the fact that he validated it, so to speak, and helped us the next year to get Harry Belafonte to come.
Biagi: The Hall of Fame, does it have a place?
Davis: It doesn't. That is its waterloo. It still has no home. I did those two years, and then I went on the board of directors, and after that we've had many opportunities or really many attempts to acquire a home, and each time—I mean, unbelievable things have happened. One of them, the city gave a site that turned out to have toxins, had been a former gas station and cost trillions to clean up the soil. So we had no money to do it, with which to build on it, and nobody's going to loan you money to do toxic cleanup. So there we were with that. Then the next building we got was the Green Library, and then along came the earthquake of 1989. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You're still looking?
Davis: No, we're now still on the string, because you know how the cities have still not been able to get their money from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to repair the city buildings, and we're hoping that the city will get enough money to repair this building. If so, we'll work out a long-term lease/buy situation with the city of Oakland.
Biagi: Let's go back to your discussions that you had as a member of the Equal [Employment] Opportunities Committee. When you would sit down at the table with these producers and directors, what arguments would they make, or would they make any arguments about why there were no blacks?
Davis: The one thing that they were all sure of was that it had nothing to do with racial prejudice; it had to do with the story line. In fact, it was a process. You meet with the network reps, the vice president for this and vice president. They'd say, "Well, that's all very interesting. What I think you need to do is meet with the show producers." So you'd set up another round of meetings with the show producers. You'd get to the show producers and they'd say, "Well, you know, this was not on purpose. It's because of the story line. We can't have blah, blah, blah, because the relationship here and there. How are we going to do this?" So then what we need to do, we need to see the writers. So then we'd have a round where we would meet with the writers. You can see how this goes on. This is why it took years to get this thing moving. Of course it was all foot-dragging.
But eventually, as we met and talked, we began to understand more, too, about how to make our points. I think in our final years we started to deal with the economics of it. I remember reading a report about the changing world society and about the direction of media, and how the smart people were thinking globally and how as what's called Third World nations, underdeveloped countries, grew, they were largely countries of people with brown or yellow skin, and that if they were going to market these programs at some later time, they ought to be aware of this and ought to start thinking about it now to be competitive. I started talking that kind of talk, and finally I could see the antennae going up, because now we're talking dollars. We're not talking public good, we're not talking good-guy stuff; we're talking about how we can all grease each other's palms a little bit.
So we did meetings. We'd meet with each network separately. Then even when it came time for union negotiations for our contracts, our committee would come in and make our case. We still have a lot of trouble and cannot get complaints over race made an arbitrable clause in our contracts. It all has to be done by sidebar negotiations. So there's a reality on the part of the union that they probably would not be successful in calling a strike over an issue of race and discrimination. But on the other hand, wanting to be supportive, they've spent thousands of dollars helping us to try to find a way to solve this problem in the Screen Guild, even with the appointment of two people that do nothing but work on affirmative action in film.
So I've learned a lot, and I think we've taught some people a few things, because all of us on the committee, who come to these, I mentioned a few people in eastern chairs and so forth, but when we hold these conferences and/or meetings, we pull in people from all over the country in not too large a group, but thirty or forty people representing most of America who work in the industry. We've been just chugging away at this.
Biagi: When you talk about visiting the FCC and asking them to maintain the numbers, those are useful for everyone, really, in the industry. I would like to reflect a little bit that, from my recollection, the numbers haven't changed much. They've been keeping the numbers for a long time, over twenty years, but the numbers haven't changed much. How do you react about that? You've been out there chugging away all this time now and not a lot has happened.
Davis: Yes. The thing about it is that the industry itself has changed so much. It used to be we could go and deal with NBC, CBS, ABC, and we'd covered most of America. Now there's this vast group of owners out there, and many of them large multiple owners, people who got into broadcasting and/or whatever to make money, not with the old psychology of the people who founded the original broadcast networks. So it gets to be more and more difficult. Then with more programming moving to cable, that's another whole area.
So it takes a lot to stay hopeful that you can change things, excepting that we have seen change. We were able to celebrate a couple of years ago the largest release of black films ever made in the country in one year, and on that year to have ten or eleven of those producer/directors in Oakland for our program. In fact, we provided a platform where they were able to forge relationships with one another. Many of them had not had a chance on a personal, non-business basis to talk with each other, to exchange ideas, and some went into co-production projects with each other. In fact, Spike Lee met a group called the Huddlin Brothers, who got together there. Paul Hall, the guy who I mentioned the first year I went in, the guy working at ABC, is now a Los Angeles producer, owns his own production house, does a lot of the making of films, and he has just produced "The Making of Malcolm X" for Spike Lee. So relationships develop this way. You sit back and try to measure it from those kinds of things. But not a lot of improvement.
Biagi: What about the news side?
Davis: In the news side, it's circular. You go up, you go from 5.5 percent this year to 5.4 percent the next year. You drop down to 4.8 and then you go up. You said, "We've increased. We're back up to 5.1." [Laughter.] It's that kind of thing, whereas women have done extremely well. Not equity, but really well. Minorities have not fared as well.
Biagi: From your knowledge of what's going on in the industry, why?
Davis: I think it's easier. You're dealing with gender, and I think it's just easier for the controlling group, which is white males, to deal with white women than it is to deal with minorities of any persuasion. It's just easier to give your daughter a break than it is some kid down the block who doesn't look like you anyway. That's how I always put it to them. So when you do that, I said, "I think it's great what you're doing for my sisters, but it's like helping your sister, helping your daughter. That's expected of you. You should have been doing that all the time. We want to talk about taking that charity a little farther."
Biagi: When you make that argument, though, to television producers and news directors, it seems you could still make the audience argument. What's their response?
Davis: They change the rules. It used to be, as you well know, the main measuring rod was major cities, big numbers. Then as the country started to change and cities became more ethnic in their makeup, we went to something called ADIs [Area of Dominant Influence], which let you spread out into the suburbs and brings in more whites and gives you a different count.
Biagi: For an audience count.
Davis: Audience count. The more colored—and I don't mean in black—your central audience became, the farther out you put emphasis on that count, where if you take the Bay Area now, the hope is that you'll forget that stations are in San Francisco, that you'll remember in outer Costa County and down in Santa Clara County, where the large populations of middle-class whites are, that we're there. That's the audience that we play to. That's the audience that we try to appeal to. A lot of our emphasis is there.
Biagi: So even if a minority population is centered in San Francisco or around San Francisco, what you say by audience is that our audience demands that we have anchors that reflect the audience. The audience is mostly white. That's what you're saying.
Davis: That's right. And so is our program focus. The bigger you make the net, the more it diminishes the minority groups' influence. So that's what's happening.
Biagi: How do the consultants—
Davis: They're the ones who dreamed it up. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Is that right? That's not a role I would even imagine for them. But it's absolutely understandable.
Davis: When I say that, when you talk about commercials are sold on the number of people you can deliver, who can buy the product, it's only natural when you look at people in the cities they
are usually poorer or older, so when you look at where you find the young families with mostly two incomes, you have to then look at the suburbs.
Biagi: So the consultants are advising them based on—
Davis: Someone is. Some consultant. I don't say it's the same one that's advising them on who to hire, but it probably is the same one, because the bottom line is, "How do I get more people to watch my station?" I'm sure that has to be a factor.
Biagi: Have you ever had a run-in personally with consultants or advice that your station took from consultants that was ever passed on to you?
Davis: Passed on, yes, but not personally. In fact, we invited to those conferences, several times we've had consultants come to explain to us what they do and why they do, so that we could better understand it. I'm a firm believer in not just looking at something and saying, "I don't like that," without knowing as much about it as I can, so I try to dig and get the sides of it so I can understand how the other guy's mind is working. That's where I got all this theory. [Laughter.]
Biagi: It's marvelous.
Davis: From listening about spreading the net.
Biagi: I appreciate the education.
Davis: People, throughout my career, they have been so cautious, going back to my first job at KPIX, when I first came into the business, just over something as simple as makeup and lighting, no experience with people who looked like me, so the conclusion is, "Oh, you're doing everything just right. Keep doing whatever you're doing." I'll never forget, they send out one of those Westmores. Remember Westmore?
Biagi: Oh, yes. That's right.
Davis: At KPIX, they got this person (me) here who is anchoring now, and they don't know what to do with me, what kind of makeup to put on me or what kind of lighting, and they flew this guy all the way from Los Angeles, and his word to me was, "You're doing everything right. Just keep on doing whatever you're doing." [Laughter.] I said, "That was a very expensive statement you just made." I don't know which of the Westmores it was. But I wasn't doing everything right, and I finally found a person on my own. I went down to one of the department stores. The woman I discovered is the one who is still doing my makeup today. She was at that time working for a cosmetic line. She helped me try to work out something, because I did not wear makeup at the time. This is after I started doing more anchoring. As a beat reporter, I hardly even wore lipstick.
Biagi: Television reporters and, of course, print reporters always remind television reporters about how important your appearance is.
Davis: I know. That's why I was rebelling, because I came out of print. So I wasn't going to go around worrying about how I looked. I should have. When I look back at some of that tape now, I wish I had worried about how I looked, but I didn't.
Biagi: Has that ever been an issue, an age issue?
Davis: Only now, in the last few years, I realize that maybe I'm—I think that's why sometimes people say, "Oh, boy, you look the same." Well, what happened is when I was younger, I didn't wear any makeup at all. I truly only wore lipstick. I didn't even know how to put on an eyeliner or anything else. But as I got older, I started adding a little bit more and a little bit more, tone this up, put a little stuff to take out those lines right there, and Sharon Martin, the makeup, was taking me along, and I was rebelling and not wanting to do it, and I still buy Maybelline eyeliner. [Laughter.] Because I refuse to spend a lot of money on that stuff! So I've been real rebellious, but as I'm getting older, by adding the makeup, people don't notice the aging as much as they might have, had I been doing it all the time. Now they see a little bit of improvement, you know. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Let's go back now. We were on the track a long time ago of your activities in the community. We talked about them. We talked about the Black Filmmakers' Hall of Fame and St. Anthony's and working for AFTRA.
Davis: Let me add one last thing to that. This business I talked about going to Washington and holding the conferences and calling on the Congress, I did those with full knowledge of my station management. I always wrote a memo and said, "I'm engaged in this project. I'm going to be in Washington. I'm going to meet with this person. If you have a problem with it, you have to let me know." I just wanted to say that, because some reporters—
Biagi: What problem do you think they would have?
Davis: Oh, a lot of reporters were appalled that I was doing this. "How can you do this? You have to cover these issues." I said, "Because I didn't give up my citizenship when I signed on here. I still have a right as a private citizen. I am working in this area. It affects me. A lot of guys still disagree with me, I've got to tell you, certainly a lot in Washington. I know them all, Washington correspondents who are now just realizing that the stuff I was working on back then directly affected their lives. Anyway, I just wanted to say that.
Biagi: But that's dividing your loyalties, supposedly, between being a reporter and not getting involved?
Davis: I wasn't doing it as a reporter; I was not using the title or anything else. I'm just a person in broadcasting concerned about these issues.
Biagi: Other activities that you got involved in? We've got to make our inventory. Would you explain LINKS, Inc.?
Davis: It's a black women's organization, really a friendship-building organization, networking organization, if you want to call it that, 45,000 women throughout the country. Basically what they do is raise money for educational scholarships and do community service. They work with the Y and YWCAs, tutorial stuff, try to serve basically as role models for young black women.
Biagi: And the Women's Forum West?
Davis: It is a high-powered networking group of basically women who are heads of corporations or next to the top in business or who own their own businesses and who see the benefits of getting together for business reasons. It sprung up at the time when women were first realizing that most business deals were done in the off hours, so this was a network to put women together. It started very small and is now international in scope.
Biagi: And the Howard Thurman Trust.
Davis: It's an educational trust also, and it provides listening, reading rooms in cities across the country. There's a name for it, where you go to try to find peace with yourself. There's a movement I'm looking for. You're trying to find solace. You can go into St. John the Divine in New York and sit and listen to the readings and words, words of comfort in times of stress and trouble. But he's written a lot of books on relationships, and people find it comforting.
Biagi: So that trust has a board, and you're on the board.
Davis: Right. For many years we provided small scholarships to about twenty-two black colleges and universities, very small grants. Sometimes the difference between a student going to school and not is the $250 to buy your books or the money, if you lived in a small town, to get transportation to go to school. We filled in those gaps. We looked for the opportunities to find students who needed to do something where a small amount of money would make a difference, and we gave that money.
Biagi: We're going to stop now. What we'll do next time when we resume is go into the eighties and then revive our discussion of the early years.
© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.