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Is Channel 8’s John McCaa a black anchor or an anchor who is black? Does it matter-to him, to viewers, to the ratings, to the city?
By Rod Davis |

This is very eerie,” Channel 8 weekend anchor John McCaa whispers from his front row seat in the sunken amphitheater that is the meeting chamber of the Dallas City Council. In the pit of politicians and reporters, past the tripods, cameras, cables, and photographers, the members of the council are moments away from a historic vote-a long overdue compromise on the fractious redistricting plan. You’d think the place would be packed with the usual suspects-a gallery of activists, spectators, and latter-day Madame Defarges come to see the latest bloodletting. But nobody’s there, and that’s what is bothering McCaa, who, though no longer a reporter, has rushed over in the midday heat to back up City Hall correspondent Dave Evans. “I don’t get it,” says McCaa, adjusting his tortoise-shell reading glasses and making an entry in his note pad. “This is a very important day and I look around and see maybe 75 people here to watch it.”

Depends on how you look at it. To McCaa, the room may be half empty, but to the 75 people craning their necks to check out the arrival of (he only black anchor at the top-rated television station in Dallas, the place has just been filled to the brim. One of the most frequently seen African-American media figures in Dallas, McCaa couldn’t even make it through the lobby of City Hall six floors downstairs without being stopped a half-dozen times, mostly by black people. Some congratulated him-“you make us proud,” said one elderly woman. Some sought his advice-a bearded man in overalls and a ball cap wanted to ask him how to approach city bureaucrats about a flooding problem at his South Lamar Street barbecue business. Some just wanted to call out, “Say, brother-,” and raise a friendly fist in solidarity. Even the cops at the metal detector outside the council chambers had perked up when McCaa arrived.

Part of that is old McLu-hanesque hat. McCaa is on TV. and TV makes life, even politics, seem real. McCaa’s presence is evidence that something important is going on, and he lends an event the kind of fame by association you think you gel by random encounter with a celebrity. But there’s more to it. Later in the afternoon, subbing for the ailing Chip Moody, McCaa sits at the anchor desk next to Lisa McRee. He will bear the tale of the council’s vote-a black man conveying the news of a black political victory in a city in which blacks, along with browns, now constitute a majority (more than 51 percent) of the population. To describe McCaa at that moment as anything less than a social icon would be like describing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as just another preacher. In an age in which television is the dominant source of mass information in our society (polls say 95 percent of Dallas-area households watch some TV on a weekly basis; only half read daily newspapers), McCaa is the perfect visual image of the ascension of tangible black power in a changing Dallas. A figure who quite transcends his role on camera, he may be, at least symbolically, the most influential person of color in the city.

MCCAA CAME TO CHANNEL 8 IN 1984. seven and one-half years of reporting under his belt from his first post-college job at a CBS affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska/He was smart and energetic, good on the beat and not bad on the air. He had the right broadcast voice-an accentless tone known in the industry as “general American dialect.” His round but solid face was, as he admits, “not exactly Billy Dee Williams,” but carried an odd charisma-somewhere between that of a cherub and a grandfather. And he was black. All of which made McCaa just what executive news director Marty Haag was seeking to boost the minority presence on the news staff.

But McCaa needed a little more experience in a major market, so Haag first posted him to the station’s Fort Worth bureau, where he slogged his way through the usual daily fare of a TV reporter-fires, plane crashes, crime scenes, local politics. He developed a reputation for being both objective and emotionally involved in his stories-slightly contradictory tendencies that, in the right mixture, can produce a dramatic tension that distinguishes the excellent from the merely good.

In 1988, Haag decided to bring McCaa- by then bureau chief in Fort Worth-home to Dallas. Some members of the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Black Communicators-of which McCaa was later to serve as president for three years-criticized Channel 8 for handing him what seemed a demotion. In Fort Worth, McCaa had become part of “management”; in Dallas, he was to be a reporter again. McCaa. however, welcomed the switch, seeing it as a step up.

The last thing Haag had in mind was demoting John McCaa. In the late 1980s, the city was hip-deep in the often painful and raucous racial realignment that continues today. Putting McCaa in the Dallas news room, Haag reasoned, could enhance the black presence at Channel 8, both on the air and out in the field.

“We felt we should have somebody as a liaison to the African-American community,” Haag says. “John was the best person for that. John is unafraid of expressing a point of view that represents a sensitivity to an African-American perspective that, say, a guy like me wouldn’t have.”

Haag had even larger plans for McCaa. A temporary anchoring stint in 1984. following the suicide of Jan Bridgman, had shown McCaa capable of the task. In September 1988. Haag named McCaa a regular anchor for the weekend news, replacing Chip Moody, who had gone to the week night news lineup to replace John Criswell when he left for Channel 4 in a well-publicized feud with Channel 8. McCaa, who hates ratings, nonetheless did well in them. The 10 p.m. Sunday newscasts became the highest rated of any at Channel 8. which has dominated the North Texas news market for the past eight years.

McCaa meanwhile earned his stripes in the news room. Co-workers thought of him as a reporter’s anchor. Like Tracy Rowlett, he had risen from the trenches of real journalism and, also like Rowlett, he wasn’t what you’d call a pretty face. In the office, he was known as even-keeled, conscientious to a fault, and dependable. Last fall, Haag gave McCaa the additional title of news manager, a responsibility shared with veteran reporter Doug Fox. The job entails developing long-range and special projects and also carries some day-to-day operating responsibilities- on weekends, McCaa is effectively the on-site news director as well as the lead anchor.

In the world of broadcasting, like other forms of media, two tracks develop-management and talent. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don’t. Haag thinks they do in McCaa. Thus the dilemma of whether to advance McCaa as an anchor-ultimately making him the first male black week-night anchor in Dallas/Fort Worth history. There have been female black anchors-Iola Johnson, who left Channel 8 in 1985, and Clarice Tinsley at Channel 4, for example-but never a male in the 6 and 10 p.m. slots.

But Haag really wants to guide McCaa further into management, a path that would lead to a position as news director, either at Channel 8 or at one of the other stations owned by the parent A.H. Belo Corporation. Haag says that, on balance, he thinks McCaa should stay on the management side-he could make history in a number of ways there, too.

McCaa’s friend James A. “Buff” Parham, the first-ever black station manager at Channel 8, agrees with Haag. “My whole thing about the media is that it is the last means of empowerment.” says Parham, who considers himself and McCaa “pioneers” both in changing the racial composition of their station and in elevating the racial consciousness of the station and the market it serves. “People have given up on the church, schools, the courts, even the home. But by telling stories, getting the word out. our station can facilitate change…We don’t want to minimalize or diminish the role of anchor people of color,” Parham says, “but in terms of sheer influence, the news director position is far more powerful.”

Either way, the station wants to hang onto McCaa-the chances of him being lured away by a network or a big market such as Chicago are ever-present. Because of McCaa’s special visibility, his departure could be troubling. Of the 85 persons in the news department-photographers, editors, producers, reporters-only about 20 percent are black or Hispanic. Just over 30 percent are female. Actually, the minority employment ratio tracks closely with that of the Dallas/Fort Worth area-21.3 percent.

But there is a pronounced on-camera disparity. The station’s main anchor row is still in a configuration known as the “four middle-aged white guys”-Moody, Rowlett, Troy Dungan, and Dale Hansen. Of 22 reporters or reporter/anchors, only five, including McCaa and Gloria Campos-who, during Chip Moody’s prolonged illness this past year, dented the all-male week night anchor team-are minority. And in the line of framed, glossy photographs of smiling anchor personalities decorating a wall in the Channel 8 hallway, McCaa’s and Campos’s are the only non-white faces. Campos is the only female besides Lisa McRee.

But McCaa, now 37. wants to stay at Channel 8. And he wants to be an anchor. As a news director, he might have influence. But as an anchor, what he does, what he says, the choices of stories and manner in which he conveys them are instantly translated to a circle of more than a million potential viewers, It is that circle John McCaa wants to reach, and if you know what really motivates him, you know the choice has nothing to do with ego.

As a student at Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, McCaa was frequently stopped by his favorite priest, the aptly named Father Flanagan, who always asked, “Are you doing enough?”

On one occasion. McCaa responded testily. “Lighten up, I’ve got 200 pages to read tonight.”

“Good,” said the priest, “but are you doing enough ?”

He asked the young McCaa, who had become deeply engrossed in the study of moral philosophy-Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche-to join other students that winter who were giving up a meal a week to provide food for poor children in Omaha. “It just hit me.” McCaa recalls. “I thought, ’Those are poor people, and most of them are black-I should be in the front of that.’”

Anchoring means being in front. “I never think about being finished,” he says. “We all have a responsibility to something greater than us. I ask myself. ’Am 1 doing my job to the standards the people who came before me, not just my own family, but all the others-the sleeping-car porters, the


On the competition: “I’m in there to win. There is no better feeling than winning. When they score one on us, they get us running. When I have them scrambling, I like It. At 5,6, and 10, we’re firing Scud missiles at each other.”

On being an anchor: “It’s all a matter of confidence, and knowing the difference between self-confidence and conceit… It’s a job. I know what It takes to put a newscast together The least Important person is the anchor.”

On music: “If anything, I wish everybody could get the musician’s attitude of exploring new ideas. I remember the first time I heard John Coltrane, I said, ’What is that?

On education: “It allowed me to take myself apart and put myself back together. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but It taught me to learn to ask enough questions to know I’m not perfect”

On the City Council: “The council Is clearly a reflection of the city. This city has problems. So it should be no surprise the council has problems. I remember once, after a shouting match, people were all upset with Diane Ragsdale. But those kinds of arguments happen everywhere in the country. It’s called democracy. We have a vocal city council because we have a vocal city.”

On race as a hiring factor in the media: “The consultants like to say to you, ’Color doesn’t matter.’ But i honestly don’t believe that.”

On objectivity: “You go to school, and theysay you should be objective. But then youwork somewhere seven or eight years and youthink, ’This is my society.’ I can’t always covermy feelings about a story-usually when It’sabout children. I remember once anchoringthe news when they found the second child’sbody [in a serial murder case]… I waslooking at the camera and fighting to keepthe tears back.” -R.D.

marchers-would be proud of?’ I think about that an awful lot.

“There is no question a black person in the media, especially an anchor, is in a position of influence,” he says. “If you don’t want to be a role model, give up the paycheck.” Using his anchor slot like Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit,” McCaa often rounds out a 12-hour workday with appearances at churches, community groups, and schools.

“I give a little speech in (he high schools,” he says. “I tell the students that when black people started doing things like marching in the civil rights protests, they actually took away one of (heir own rights.

“The kids say, -’What? What right?”

“I tell them, ’The right to give up.’ “

That may be the sort of thing you’d expect McCaa to say to kids, but in his own mind, the compulsion to “do enough” has taken turns even Father Flanagan wouldn’t have imagined.

“I’ve become fascinated by Howard Hughes,” McCaa remarked one evening while flipping through family photo albums at the dining room table in his suburban, ranch-style South Arlington home. “I would like to walk up to people-like the guy who cleans the parking lot at Channel 8-and give them a check for a half million dollars. That’s the most fulfilling thing I could do.

“I don’t see it as generosity. I wouldn’t do it for thrills. We all know people who are good human beings. To right some of those wrongs would be terrific.” He looked at his 6-year-old son, Collin, whom he and his wife Michele had just taken to Disneyland, and laughed. “I guess I sound like Robin Hood.”

THE SON OF A QUIET, TOUGH AIR FORCE Chief Master Sergeant who still, at age 60, jogs seven or eight miles a day, McCaa was born in Rantoul, Illinois, but grew up all over the place. He graduated from high school in Madrid, Spain, where he developed an interest in three related careers: music, broadcasting, and stand-up comedy. He played drums in “The Scarlet Spectrum,” a garage band heavily indebted to one of McCaa’s favorites-Jimi Hendrix, hosted “Teen Talk” on armed forces radio, and performed skits (“The John McCaa Show”) at school assemblies. He had no idea, though, what to do with his life.

Johnnie, his dad, wanted him to go to college instead of taking up a military career (in turn. John doesn’t want his own son to be a journalist). Although the family was Southern Baptist, McCaa enrolled in Creighton. partly because of nearby friends and relatives, but partly because his father admired the renowned scholastic bent of the activist Catholic order. “My father believes in education,” says McCaa. “He was a lot like the Jesuits. He doesn’t believe in reaction. He believes in thinking about things philosophically.” In time, McCaa became both like his father and like the Jesuits-a temperate, deeply introspective man never seen to lose his temper, ignore the suffering of others, or bypass a moral issue.

But the first year of college was tough. When he enrolled at Creighton in 1972, McCaa was a military brat, returning from a sheltered overseas base in Spain to a country he barely knew anymore. “The Vietnam war was still going on,” he recalls, “and the first things I saw were anti-war protests and relatives on drugs.” All through his freshman year, he was overwhelmed and homesick. Margaret, his mother-emotional and vocal, unlike the taciturn Johnnie-often wrote to “Kimmie.” as she still calls him (John Kimberly McCaa) to cheer him up. It helped, but he was concerned about his father’s reaction to what was beginning to look like academic failure. “People always told me, ’Your dad is a fine man. You have an awful lot to live up to.’” McCaa says. “I don’t know if most men feel they live up to their fathers. I hope I do. I think I’m afraid to ask.”

By his junior year, McCaa felt he had moved closer to expectations-his and his father’s. He got serious about his grades and studied so much he forgot how to socialize. Well, almost. McCaa sat in on drums with local bands a couple of times a month (still does today), took gigs in Omaha comedy clubs doing “pretty blue material” (he’s a notorious mimic around the office), and in 1975 tried, without success, to land an audition for the role of Lionel in “The Jeffer-sons” (he never tried that again).

During his junior year, John met Michele, the Catholic psychology major from Chicago he would later marry despite their first meeting, which she describes as “the date from hell.” Things went better next time, and by the time McCaa graduated in 1976 he was reluctant to leave Omaha, where Michele was still in school. He hoped to parlay a lowly production assistant job at CBS “affiliate WOWT into something better.

But the station couldn’t take him on permanently. For six months following graduation, John McCaa worked as a security guard for Wells Fargo. Night after night he patrolled troublesome apartment complexes armed with a journalism degree, a BB gun (“It looked like a Winchester rifle-I still have it”), and a funk. “It was the hardest part of my life,” he recalls. “I just kept thinking, ’What am I gonna do with myself?’”

He kept badgering the TV station until one day, while patrolling at the Continental Can Co., he received the call-an interview for a regular reporting slot. “I said, ’Please, God. let me get this job.’” He got it. at $187.50 a week. That was fine, McCaa thought. He had been prepared to work for free just to get the chance.

JAMES BALDWIN. THE NOVELIST AND essayist, once remarked that he spent his entire career behaving exactly like a black writer or exactly not like a black writer, and thought maybe it came to the same thing anyway. Baldwin would have found his dilemma intensified if he’d worked in television. As marketing pressures force news rooms to increase the proportions of blacks and browns and women in order to reflect audience demographics, stations which previously rejected, for example, blacks as broadcast journalists are today hiring them. But is it because they are black or because they are good? And, once hired, are they black reporters or reporters who are black?

“When I started in the business back in 1976,” says McCaa, “a lot of African-American reporters were fed up with being told they had to report on the black community. And then we got away from that to an extent. Now, we’re slowly changing the approach. Now, if you’re a black reporter, you bring something to the mix because you are black. If I’m in the newsroom, other reporters can draw on my experience by asking me questions. I’m a reporter, but I’m also an African-American.”

Not everyone agrees with McCaa. Some black reporters, for example, are now requesting exclusive black beats. The theory is that blacks can cover black issues best. But McCaa thinks limiting blacks (or women, or anyone) to a narrowly defined range of topics is self-defeating, regardless of motive.

“I hear some of that,” he says, “but I would get in a rather heated argument with someone who really wanted to do that. It’s still a matter of adding to the mix, of adding resources to the news room. Fora start, what are ’black issues’? What is the ’black perspective’? When people say blacks can best cover black issues, what do they mean by ’best’?

“You don’t want to limit yourself. As a reporter, you cover what your editor tells you to cover. The way to move up is by covering certain things-politics, schools and so on. In the long run, that’s what you want to do, to cover those sorts of things. You add resources to the news room as a black reporter, but I object to anybody saying, ’I only want to cover stories about black folks.’”

The first major feature assigned to McCaa after his transfer from Fort Worth was “A City Divided,” a study of racial issues in Dallas. If Haag’s reasoning was correct, McCaa was the “tentacle” into the black community necessary to make the piece work. But the assignment made McCaa uncomfortable-the balance between “black reporter and reporter who is black” seemed tipped too consciously toward the former. Just on the job and he is assigned a “black folks” piece. On the other hand, he thought, why shouldn’t a piece on conflicts between whites and blacks come from a black perspective? The question begged an even larger one-what is the white perspective? “I’m a reporter, and that shouldn’t change the issues,” McCaa decided. “Someone needs to know what black folk talk about. Who better?” He did the piece.

But if McCaa negotiated the risk of being pigeonholed, he was hardly clear of the professional and ethical complications that surround any journalist who, because of race or gender or religion or even regional background is considered different from the presumed cultural mainstream. Not only do you have to prove yourself to that mainstream (women prove themselves to men; Texans prove themselves to New Yorkers, etc.), but you also have to assure your own subgroup that you haven’t sold out. McCaa recalls attending a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists at which reporters who had criticized Harold Washington, mayor of Chicago, were attacked as race traitors. It was a charge that had two or three years earlier been advanced upon Washington Post reporter Milton Col-eman for publishing the politically charged “Hymietown” conversation with Jesse Jackson. McCaa vehemently disagreed with the attacks. As president of the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Black Communicators, McCaa himself had criticized various local media outlets, including this one, for alleged discriminatory coverage, but he considers blind loyalty as insidious as blind prejudice.

In a letter to D Magazine published last June. McCaa, as outgoing president of DFW/ABC, said the organization was “outraged” by a March cover story on Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. McCaa says that although he signed the letter in his official capacity, he also personally considers the piece to have been “unfair.”

He takes no political position regarding Price, now under indictment, and whose picketing activities at Channel 8 have been steadfastly avoided by McCaa, as they have been by his co-workers. McCaa acknowledges he has been asked to support Price, as he has been asked to lend his backing to other local black leaders or political causes. The proffered justification is racial solidarity. It doesn’t work with McCaa any more than it did with Milton Coleman.

“When people come to me and ask my opinion or my endorsement, I say, ’I’m just a reporter,’” McCaa says. “If you’re searching for political solutions, you need to go to the political leadership. My job as a reporter is to watch the process occur.

“If you’re looking for allegiance as a reporter,” McCaa says, “you’d better not give it to a politician, whether he’s black or not. What if you get on a political bandwagon, and the politician is crooked? Then you’re part of the problem. As a reporter, you have to ask, what is your job? It’s to ferret out the truth no matter what gets in your way.

“If you do that [as a black reporter], sometimes you get called an Uncle Tom, or a handkerchief head-they say, ’Oh, you live in the big house now.’ 1 believe you present information to people that’s fair-none of us can be totally objective. If you present all sides, people can make up their own minds. Maybe it’s not the way you or I want to see it, but it is the way the people do.”

On one occasion, activist Roy Williams, plaintiff in the City Council redistricting suit, was “riled” by a piece in which McCaa examined the impact of the federal Voting Rights Act and resultant lawsuits in the past decade. The thesis of the piece was that faith in the courts to redress minority inequities actually represented a dependence on the white establishment, not defiance of it. Civil rights-minded jurists such as Judge Jerry Buchmeyer merely camouflage the dependence, McCaa argued. If more conservative judges came in-as they have since 1980- suits like those launched by Williams might not get anywhere. A better strategy for minorities, suggested McCaa, was to pack the polling booths, not the courthouse. “If half the city is minority and if that half votes-along with a sizable percentage of whites-there will be no need for court action,” he said later, defending the piece. That wasn’t what Williams, whose local celebrity is closely tied to legal battles, wanted to hear. But it was McCaa’s judgment as a reporter. Williams didn’t have a lock on the “black perspective” or any other perspective-nor does anyone else.

“We all think we’re experts in race relations,” McCaa says. “But for a reporter the big issue is integrity. . .Ultimately every journalist trades on his or her integrity. We have to do all we can to uphold it. Not just in what we do, but in how we do it. 1 have very strong feelings on that.”

McCaa’s insistence on integrity, on fairness, sometimes results in rethinking even his own biases. As co-producer of “Hispanic Dallas: The Changes to Come,” a half-hour special narrated by Gloria Campos. McCaa wanted to change the word “assimilation” to “integration” to describe the cultural experience of Hispanics in the city. He thought assimilation implied a giving up of certain qualities, while integration connoted a merger without losing identity.

But co-producer Becky Slack and Campos felt just the opposite. Campos said “integration” would connote, for Hispanic viewers, a giving up of identity. McCaa deferred to her judgment-Campos was Hispanic; he was not. Who better to know?-as he had concluded about his own input in “A City Divided.” He saw that he was dealing with “charged words” that carry different meanings to different audiences. Whenever such words or phrases come up. in reference not only to racial issues but to many others (for example, the terms “anti-abortion” and “pro-life”). McCaa asks himself if the usage would offend those to whom the words directly apply.

Haag calls McCaa one of the “moral compasses” of the news department. McCaa’s co-anchor McRee thinks of him as an ongoing source of balance. “You won’t find a racist or bigot in this newsroom,” she says. “But sometimes in the pursuit of a story we may lose sight of the most sensitive parts. We may not be as spontaneously sensitive in word choice, or choice of sound bite, or the pictures we use. I can ask John if it is right to approach a certain situation in regard to race. I can say, “John, here’s what I feel. How does that make you feel?’”

WEDNESDAY THROUGH FRIDAY, MCCAA is at his desk in the command module of the news room-four desks crammed together amid enough electronics, hardware, and noise to make you old before your time. He usually arrives around 7:30 a.m., though nothing much starts happening before the 9 a.m. daily story briefing. But McCaa likes to get in early. He can miss most of the traffic and also catch the morning radio talk shows. Better yet. he can punch in a tape of Beethoven or the soundtrack to “New Jack City.”

News and information are important to McCaa, but so is music. On his days off he stays home. He likes to read-just finished Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, the National Book Award winner about slavery. But he also likes to settle down-escape would be a better word-at the electronic drum kit in his study. About once a month, usually after the Sunday shift, McCaa shows up at local live music clubs to jam. For an hour or so. he doesn’t have responsibilities or obligations, just the rhythm in his fingers.

As the morning progresses, the news room-which McCaa likens to “some kind of living animal’-gets busier. McRee stops to ask about the lineup for 5 o’clock. “I like John a lot,” she says. “When you sit next to somebody day to day, you get to know them in a different way than you do other co-workers. It’s not just all jokes. He’s a very good listener. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously. In this business some people do.”

But just after noon, as McCaa scans the feeds from CNN and ABC, he cannot avoid seriousness. His expression-ordinarily something between the Buddha and the Mona Lisa-turns grim. His face drains to gray. Lost in thought for several minutes, as though viewing some kind of private hell no one has seen yet, he says, quietly, “Marshall’s leaving.”

Silently, he studies a wire service bulletin, flips the computer screens to find more information, and turns up the CNN monitor fora late report. Despite the tautness of his countenance, you wouldn’t know what is flashing through McCaa’s mind as he contemplates the departure of the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nor are you supposed to. “Nowhere on your paycheck does it say you’re supposed to give your opinion,” he likes to say. Not that he doesn’t have one. It’s just not his job.

His job is to spread the word. As acting news director that day, he must find a reporter to localize the story. Bodies are scarce-McCaa wonders if he’ll have to use the feed from ABC, or maybe call in a part-timer. But Michael Hill, the only full-time black reporter on the staff, emerges to ask for the assignment. McCaa gives it to him. Who better?