Thomas Wright

Duration: 38Mins 22Secs
Please read and accept the disclaimer below to continue.

DISCLAIMER

I have read and accept the terms of the disclaimer.

The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.

The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.

The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.

Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:

The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
500 McKinney
Houston, Texas 77002


The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.

For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at information@houstonoralhistory.org.

I have read and accept the terms of the disclaimer.



Interview with: Thomas Wright
Interviewed by:
Date: October 3, 1974
Archive Number: OH 199b

Interviewer
0:00:06.2 This is the continuation of an interview with Mr. Thomas Wright. Mr. Wright, let’s talk a little bit about your role with KXYZ. What was your initial contact with the station?

Thomas Wright
My initial contact with the station was in doing a public affairs show that they wanted to get started back in October of 1970. At that particular time, Randall Tellington—who is now the assignments editor over at Channel 11—was sort of news director of KAUM and editorial director up here at the radio station KXYZ. They wanted to initiate the first regularly scheduled ménage of public affairs show in Houston, and Randy came to me and asked me if I would help him devise the format for the show—the possible guests for the show—and I did. I came over and did that. After we had done that, he decided that he’d like for me to host the show until they found a permanent host—preferably someone who had experience in broadcast journalism. And after they could not find anyone, he said hey, how about continuing to host this show? So, that was my first contact with KXYZ.

Interviewer
What kind of issues did you address yourself to?

Thomas Wright
Most of them were—in the very beginning—political issues—where black people were politically. I knew enough about the political scene to know that in the 1970’s—the decade of the ‘70s—that black people had to become involved extensively in the political process if we were to effect the kinds of change that we thought was needed in our community—that we had to get involved and getting involved meant being aware of issues and going to the polls and voting. Most of the shows in the very beginning were political—all the way from the established kinds of system—Republican Party blacks or Democratic Party blacks—to the not-so-well-known political activist groups like ABL—African-Americans for Black Liberation—which was still active in 1970.

Interviewer
0:02:30.3 What was the reaction of the listening audience?

Thomas Wright
The initial reaction was shock. I think the initial reaction was shock on the part of the majority white audience, which is what we have—99.9% of our audience is white. The idea was not so much to program black issues for black people to black people because we knew that that wasn’t our audience, and we could not expect mass numbers of blacks to all of a sudden at 8:30 on Sunday night turn to KXYZ. We didn’t anticipate that at all. So, the format for the show that Randy and I devised was to educate white people about those issues. We felt that the media here in Houston was doing an awfully poor job of telling the other side of the story. If you remember back in 1970, blacks were having problems with police, and it seemed like every day someone was complaining of police brutality. And the only side of that 1 issue that most white people were hearing—on most radio and television stations—was that side of Herman Short, a man that—the police chief that black people in Houston grew to hate. We felt that while there were going to be many people who did not like the airing of this other point of view—and it is a black point of view. The show is very biased toward the black point of view. Sometimes when we’re doing a documentary we will strive for balance in the show, but we will strive to present both sides. But there are some of those issues that are so crucial and so gut to black people that that is the only side of the story that’s heard. And like I said, the initial reaction was shock and after that our switchboard out there—the lights came on. Unfortunately on weekends—Sunday night we don’t have anybody that’s going to answer the switchboards. The people just didn’t get any answers to their telephone calls, but there was a little bit of outrage until people came to respect the show.

Interviewer
Later you became editorial director of KXYZ. Could you tell me about this position in regards to the duties and the amount of policy making control that you possess?

Thomas Wright
Any time you’re an editorial director of a big station like this 1—it’s owned and operated by ABC—you have a heck of a lot of changes to go through, especially with attorneys in New York, and the general manager of the radio station, and the policy book that ABC has for all its owned and operated stations. It’s a very powerful job simply because when the general manager goes on the air and we say that this is an editorial statement, we’re saying that the station is taking a stand on a crucial issue, and that stand is determined by the editorial director in consultation with the general manager. I’m not saying that if I decide that something is what we’re going to stand on then that’s it because it really isn’t. I make the decision after investigating the situation—what stand I think the station should take.

0:06:04.7 The general manager and I have this kind of chemistry among each other, and I know how he feels about different kinds of things. We talk and we interact. He’s a liberal—basically a liberal person. He’s an ex-priest. He was going to school to be a priest, and he’s liberal on some issues, conservative on others. I try to steer away from those that he’s conservative on because I’m basically a liberal person, and I sure as heck don’t want to write a conservative editorial condemning abortion. Being an ex-priest he’s that way. I don’t want to write that kind of editorial so I don’t even deal with the problem. I don’t deal with that issue in an editorial. Now, I will in the news because he cannot dictate to me what—who we should interview or anything like that. But it’s a very powerful—it was a very powerful job. In fact, right now I’m back again as editorial director because we lost our editorial director about 3 weeks ago, and since I’m the only other person around the station who has any experience at all in writing editorials I re-inherited the job. But it’s a very powerful job. It’s probably 1 of the most powerful in the station.

Interviewer
Do any particular instances stand out in your mind when your audience reacted either positively or negatively to any of the positions you took?

Thomas Wright
We had a great deal of reaction from a series of editorials I did back in March and early April on how people in Harris County were being ripped off by the commissioner’s court—not being ripped off so purposefully as the commissioner’s court willfully violating the state’s civil statutes on the auditing—independent auditing—of trust funds that are held in the coffers of the county clerk and district clerk. When I discovered that there were something like $12 million in these trust funds and they hadn’t been audited since 1962 when a probate judge—1 of the most powerful judges in Harris County, Clem McClelland—was convicted and sent to prison for trafficking in trust funds. It was a scandal. It was almost as if the godfathers of the county decided that we aren’t ever going to have a scandal like that again, so we’re not going to ever audit those trust funds again. So they haven’t been audited. I don’t know whether some money is missing from those trust funds—whether anyone has been trafficking in them or not—but I think they ought to be audited simply because that’s the law. The law says that they ought to be audited. And we wrote this series of editorials and had a great deal of response from them. In fact, so much response that as of right now the whole issue of those trust funds is before the attorney general who is to make a ruling on whether those trust funds ought to be audited in the annual independent audit ordered by the commissioner’s court.

Interviewer
0:09:25.7 After you were editorial director, you became news director. What does it mean to you both personally and professionally to be news director at KXYZ?

Thomas Wright
Personally it allows me to put into motion most of those things that I feel good journalism is all about. I have some very definite views on what journalists ought to be about the business of doing. There’s a very thin line between advocacy journalism and objective journalism. Some people say there is a difference. I contend there is no difference simply because most of the issues that we cover on a day-to-day basis are simply matters of what’s right, what’s wrong, and what is in the best interest of people. I’ve always been a critic of the media. I think that the only way to make the media better is to criticize it. Three years ago a group of us journalists started what we called the Houston Journalism Review. I was president of the review—the board of directors of the review—and we killed a review about 3 months ago simply because it was 1 of those kinds of arguments that was destined to—not to fail but destined to phase itself out because we were highly critical of the Post, the Chronicle, 11, 13, and 2 radio stations. We were, I guess, sort of young and idealistic is what a lot of people were saying that we were. But we tried to change journalism here in Houston. We tried to make these organizations more responsive to human needs as opposed to corporate needs. As news director of the station, I know that I can—I am in control of what goes on the air here, and hopefully that it will serve as an example of what the other news-gathering organizations should be about the business of doing.

When I first became news director, my reporters were shocked and amazed—astonished that when they went out on a story they didn’t see what they usually saw, and that is 15 other reporters at the same place. People here in Houston have a tendency to follow the crowd. If somebody is doing 1 story then—say for instance, if Channel 11 is doing 1 story then Channel 2 feels obligated that they must cover that same story. So, Channel 13—so you get all these reporters in 1 place listening to 1 person stand up there and spout some kind of view. Well, my reporters rarely if ever see other reporters at the places they go. We in the media have to go out and find these kinds of stories because they are important stories. They tell the human drama. They tell life as it really is existing. It details what is happening to people, and as news director I control that here. I control it not only at this station. I control it downstairs at our FM station. I also control editorial policy at both of the stations. I also control public affairs shows at both of these stations. And while the job itself is a powerful job, I’m not a power-hungry person. I just know that I have a feeling about how things ought to be. And I feel that this is the thing that journalism is going to have to do if it is going to survive the next 20 years.

0:13:07.9 If the credibility of journalism is going to survive really as before the state—what it’s supposed to be—and that is to work to create change because the whole system—the whole system of checks and balances in government—the first the state, the second, the third—and then you have journalism here is the fourth 1 to watch those other 3—the executive branch of government, the judiciary, and the legislative. You’ve got those 3 big powerful bodies, and somewhere along the line the people’s interests have to be served. We’ve got to go and find out what those other 3 are doing that affect the lives of people. And then ask those people how they’re going to deal with it, and then come up with some way to help them understand how to deal with it. So, I am gratified that I have the job. I don’t intend to be news director very long simply because I don’t enjoy sitting behind a desk and dictating policy. I don’t enjoy that. My forte is investigative reporting. Right now I get out once every 2 weeks to really dig on a story, which is not saying I want to do it every day. But when I do leave this job, I intend that ours will be the best news department in the city of Houston, and if any 1 of the reporters or newscasters that I have could take over this job because the philosophy or the ideals would be the same.

Interviewer
You mentioned that your reporters aren’t at the same places where the rest of the reporters are. How do you select the events you cover?

Thomas Wright
We don’t cover events. The only thing we cover on a regular basis is city council. The only reason we do that is simply because the decisions made at city council carry such a tremendous amount of weight on the lives of people here in Houston. For instance, okaying a telephone rate increase or a gas or light company rate increase, making the decision to put streets to repair and which streets not to repair, who’s going to get sewer service in the city of Houston and who isn’t going to get sewer service in the city of Houston. That’s the only thing we cover on a regular basis. We don’t staff the cop shop at the police station. We don’t staff commissioner’s court. We don’t staff the school board. We don’t staff the federal courts—the traditional beats that practically everybody else in town staffs—simply because I don’t believe in beat reporting. I think that when people get on beats they tend to become pawns of whomever—whatever beat they’re on. If they’re at the police station, they become the pawn of the police chief because the police chief recognizes the power of the media, and he’s always trying to get that person in the cop shop on his side.

0:16:09.3 I remember very vividly—1 day I was down at the police station doing a story, and a veteran reporter—he had been covering the police beat for 18 years—was oblivious to the blood that was on the floor. It didn’t even occur to him to ask anyone why this blood is on the floor. Who have you beaten up here? Why did you beat that person? It never occurred to him. So I don’t believe in covering beats. For that particular reason we don’t cover events as such.

I decide what stories we are going to do. Some take 2 hours to do. Some take 2 days to do. For instance, this morning 1 of my reporters was working on a story. You’re not going to see this story from anybody else, but the long-range implications of women’s liberation focusing on it more from women working and children being reared in childcare centers. With more and more children being reared in childcare centers, are we going to end up with a generation of Spartans—people who are ingrained with the same kinds of philosophies and ideas—as opposed to the individualism that children got when they were reared in nuclear families? You’re not going to see that story anywhere else because it’s not an event, but it’s a continuing thing that’s happening on the social scene. And I know it simply because I’m out there among the people, and I just walked into a daycare center 1 day and I said hey, really, when I was a kid I didn’t ever go to a daycare center. I was always at home. My momma was at home. What’s going to happen to these kids? So that became a story assignment. We don’t cover events. We cover the things that are happening to people every day. And hopefully they can relate to what I reveal to them.

Interviewer
You became news director shortly before the station also changed its format from the gentle-on-your-mind type to a more diversified program. What has been the reaction of the audience thus far with both changes happening at once?

Thomas Wright
Our old audience is outraged. They feel that we have abandoned them. We were playing beautiful music. The reason for changing the format was a corporate decision based on very sound reasoning, as far as I was concerned. ABC does not do things for the hell of doing them. They really know what they’re doing before they will invest half a million dollars in a format change. The decision was made basically a year ago when popular beautiful-music artists stopped recording hit songs. Beautiful music is simply a spring-off from the rock songs. For instance, a rock group puts out a new hit. The beautiful-music artist—I can’t think of any off hand—but you know, the people who sing those kinds of songs usually pick up the rock song and then rework it into beautiful music. Well, they stopped doing that, and the beautiful-music market was drying up. We couldn’t get any new records. So the move was made, and the old audience when 1 day on July 1st, 1974, they had their radios set to wake them up to beautiful music and they came on with rock music—they really couldn’t understand it. So they were outraged, but we knew that we were going to lose every 1 of them, and we have. But we’ve also picked up. We’ve doubled our audience in total numbers with new people

Interviewer
0:20:10.0 I don’t know whether you can gauge it or not, but what type of people listen to the station now?

Thomas Wright
We project them based on the music—the kind of music we play and the rotation and everything, including the news we do. We are reaching an audience that is middle class, mostly college graduates between the ages of 25 and 39. You see here we have a sizeable black audience—and when I say sizeable I mean 15% of our audience is black. We figure the rest—the other 85% is white, and we gear toward men.

Interviewer
Do you get much feedback from the audience in terms of whether you cover the issues they want to hear about? Or do they—?

Thomas Wright
People just normally just listen. People who like what you’re doing you very seldom if ever hear from them. It’s the people that don’t like what you’re doing that you hear from. I get them monitored. My reporters are out every day. We talk to people every day, and we feel that the people are receptive to our kind of news because it’s news that affects them. And it’s not somebody telling them what’s happening to them. It’s not the mayor, it’s not the president, and it’s not some Congressperson or the county judge. It’s their next-door neighbor. It’s that person over there that we interview on the streets out there. You can relate to that guy. Here’s a guy who’s in the same bag with them trying to deal with the same kind of problem and who may have found the solution to that problem or just might be blowing off steam—giving his feelings about what is happening to him. That’s the kind of news we do, and I think they relate to it. At least that’s the impression that I get.

Interviewer
0:22:07.9 You mentioned that 15% of your audience is black. Do you still have the program—the black Insight program?

Thomas Wright
Insight will run forever. It’s a good show. It’s won more awards than any other public affairs show in the nation, and it’s won all of the big ones that it’s supposed to win. It will be here long after I’ve left here because the legacy has been established. Interns work on it and if I leave here 1 of the interns will then become producer of it.

Interviewer
Has there been any change in advertisements as far as the station is concerned after changing its format?

Thomas Wright
We had a tremendous drop. For a couple of weeks there, we were beginning to wonder if we were running a free-form station with no commercials. The advertisers seem to get afraid when people change format. They don’t know whether it’s being accepted or not, and consequently things sort of tapered off. But we picked up a hell of a lot of new clients. We’ve gotten a couple of good books—books meaning Houston Media Audit—it’s a survey service—and the Hooper, which is another ratings service—and they were very good books for us, and consequently sales are picking up now. And ABC has committed to the format. You have to always realize that in a big corporation like ABC, this station can do things that maybe a KULL or KYLK—these stations can’t do. ABC’s committed to this format for 2 years, and if we don’t have a dollar’s worth of advertising on the air for 2 years ABC is still going to stay with the format because it’s a scientifically-run corporation, and they know the long-range implications of something, and they know that it takes time for a format to catch on. They’ve put big money into the promotion of the new format, so it’s just destined to work simply because ABC doesn’t do things that don’t work.

Interviewer
We’ve been touching a little bit on some of your general attitudes and philosophies about the media. Maybe we can delve into it a little bit deeper. Do you feel that there’s a scarcity of black-oriented programming in the media?

Thomas Wright
0:24:34.2 I think there’s scarcity of good black programming. Most of the radio and television stations here in the city of Houston—I’m extremely critical of the media, and being a part of it I guess I’m in a way critical of myself, also. But there’s so much that needs to be done. For instance, most of the black programming you see on the 3 television stations here in the city of Houston—you see panel discussions—a couple of people sitting around a table discussing an issue. Most of the time, the people—and I’ve been on some of them, so I know that’s what they’re doing. Most of the time they get some big-name person in the community—either a Barbara Jordan, or Andrew Jefferson, or Judson Ryman, or Gloria Marshall, C. Anderson Davis—and they get a group of people around to question them. That’s good but it’s not the best that can be done.

The format with which to really explore issues and really have meaningful programming for black people is the documentary. With a documentary, in 30 minutes you can cover a subject and have interviewed some 50 to 60 people—and you really get a diverse cross section of opinion on issues and then people get to participate in it. That isn’t done. The reason it isn’t done is because it costs money, and while these television stations around here make 6 and 7 million dollars a year in profits, they just don’t want to commit $100,000 to doing 4 primetime documentaries a year. The programming is less meaningful than it could be. It could be a hell of a lot better.

The way black people are portrayed on television—it might sound like I’m picking on television, but after all, it’s the most powerful swayer of public opinion that there is in this country today. The way black people are portrayed on television is just ludicrous. I don’t care what anybody says about Sanford and Son and this other show Good Times with this family in this tenement house in Chicago. They might be funny but they’re Amos and Andy to me simply because that much money is poured into producing that bullshit, and they expect it to make people laugh. And they do laugh, but hey, there are really some people out there who are doing some things in the black community—who are doing good things, meaningful things. Nobody has ever thought about going down and taking some of that money they spend on 1 show on Sanford and Son and going down to Atlanta to see blacks in 1 of the most progressive cities in the country. Nobody wants to go to Tuskegee where 3 black men are getting ready to put up the first black oil refinery in the country. Nobody wants to do a story on that, you know. They want people to laugh at corny jokes and niggers slapping hands, faking hard times, and going to go to heaven to visit their wives and all that kind of stuff.

0:28:16.0 The social message isn’t there, and to me the programming could just be a hell of a lot more meaningful. To me, that Sanford and Son and whatever that other show is—Good Times—they don’t do anything to inspire young black children, and we’ll continue to get into the mainstream of American life, and those are the people that have to be inspired to do other things. The best way to do that is to give them examples, to demonstrate to them that hey, you can make it in this system. You don’t have to hang out on the corner. You don’t have to be a pimp or a prostitute in order to afford yourself a Cadillac if that’s what you really want in life. It’s time for the media to sell to black people. The programming is there. The advertising is there. When you have the panel discussions here in Houston on the local level, people don’t want to put money into it. And on the national level—the network level—you have Sanford and Son and Good Times as opposed to more black journals.

Interviewer
0:29:20.2 Recently the bill concerning the renewal of licenses for radio and TV stations has come to the forefront. What are your views concerning this bill?

Thomas Wright
I think it’s ludicrous. Right now it’s bad enough where you have licensees coming up every 3 years to have their license scrutinized by the FCC to renew commitments that they have made and to allow community action groups the chance to call those broadcasters to task about some of the things that they’ve been doing over 3 years. To extend, as far as I’m concerned, the license and renewal period to 5 years is detrimental to the public. It’s big business, broadcasting is. It’s a very powerful business as we’ve already been discussing, and the agency that regulates it is, in my opinion, lazy just because they’re the supporters of this bill and community action—what it’s going to do is it’s just going to virtually wipe out people being able to challenge licenses.

The FCC and the NAB—the National Association of Broadcasters—will tell you that you can challenge a person’s license at any time. Technically that’s correct, but you’ve got to have such a solid case in the middle of licensing—a broadcaster almost has to have done some blatantly wrong thing. Most broadcasters are really smart people. They’re not going to do anything that’s going to be that shattering where their license will be taken from them. That will never happen. Right now, when the licenses come up every 3 years, community action groups can form their coalitions and they can start monitoring stations, and they can put together a collective effort to go to the FCC in the event they feel a broadcaster is detrimental to the best interests of the community. To extend it to 5 years is—it’s just going to make it a hell of a lot harder. People are going to have to suffer bad programming and racist attitudes and philosophies for 2 extra years before there’s really any real thing that they can do about it.

Interviewer
Speaking of the groups, what’s your opinion of Black Citizens for Media Access?

Thomas Wright
0:32:01.8 I think it’s a very fine organization. It’s headed by Pluria Marshall and Pluria is knowledgeable about the media. He knows how the media works. I think he’s been cooperative with most of the broadcasters in town, and most of the broadcasters have been cooperative with him. I think that 1 thing that people have to keep in mind when you talk about Black Citizens for Media Access is—and that is that it is a continuous monitoring operation. They don’t just get active when license renewal time comes up. In fact, Pluria will be over here at this radio station next week on a community luncheon where we will sit down with him and will talk about issues that are important to people in the black community, look at our programming, our public affairs shows, and our news and editorials to see basically how we can respond to those things that he feels are of interest or are of importance to black people.

I hold Black Citizens for Media Access in very high esteem simply because it has been 1 of the forces in the community that has made broadcasting more susceptible to the needs of black people. I doubt very seriously whether I would even be a news director at this radio station had it not been for pressure from some body, and when we forget about that—when we get into these positions and forget about black people—the people who put us here—then it’s like Ben Hook says. If you don’t reach behind you and pull somebody up then you’ve failed regardless of how good you might be in your profession. You can never forget that you’re in a position because of the many things that many other black people have done—whether it’s Black Citizens for Media Access, the NAACP, SCOC, the Urban League, or just some little old lady out there who decided when she saw Ron Sack on the street 1 day and said, “Why don’t you have any blacks on your station?” But you have to remember that, and it’s for that particular reason that I think Black Citizens for Media Access is a great organization.

Interviewer
To my knowledge, you’re 1 of the few blacks holding such a prominent position as news director of a major radio station. In view of this, do you feel you have a special responsibility to blacks or to the community at large?

Thomas Wright
I’ve always felt that I had a responsibility to black people because if it were not for black people I wouldn’t be here today. I know that. I don’t have any doubt in my mind about it. You can say I am as professional as anyone in the world, but I know that—so were Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and a lot of other people. I have a responsibility to the community simply because I am black. I can never forget that I’m black. Every time I look at myself in the mirror in the morning I know I’m black. I’m out there in the community every day. Every day. And I don’t mean out in a middle-class neighborhood. I mean on Dowling Street, on Scott Street. You can see me out there every day talking with my brothers and sisters and trying my best to find out what makes them tick. What makes them do the things they do?

0:35:20.8 The other night—everybody knows me out there. Anyway, the other night I was down on Scott and McGowen. I don’t know whether you know anything about Scott and McGowen—where the Spaghetti House is, where the dope pushers hang out and sell their wares. I was down there talking to some heroin dealer and was just really trying to find out—this was an off-the-record kind of conversation. They know that I’m not going to go down to 61 Riesner Street at the police station and turn them in. Even if I wanted to do that it wouldn’t do any good anyway. The city wouldn’t go out there and arrest them. The police know their place wouldn’t be existing down there. But anyway, they know I’m not going to do that. But I’m out there. I’m out there in the community every day simply because I do have a responsibility to the community to put on the air—in some form or another—those things that they are concerned about and try to come up with—whether it’s here at the radio station or over at Forward Times—some kind of solution to their problems as I see the solution. Just from our talk about changes in journalism—that things are no longer as they were in the 1960’s and that we have to be where the decisions are made, and I’m there where the decisions are made in addition to being out there on the street. So I can relay to them those things that are going to happen to them that are going alter their lifestyles. My responsibility to the community is a great 1. Sometimes my family feels that I’m neglecting them because of that responsibility, but that’s their problem and not mine.

Interviewer
Earlier you mentioned your views on advocacy journalism. I think you said that all journalism nowadays is advocacy journalism. Would you—?

Thomas Wright
I think it all should be. Really all it is—people criticize Dan Rather—the CBS White House correspondent who’s been jerked off that job since Nixon is out of office. People said he hounded Nixon out of office. The man was simply questioning. He was doing his job as a responsible journalist. He was trying to find out the truth, and Nixon lied, and lied, and lied, and lied some more. He lied to the American people and then 1 day he had to face that lie head on. People still haven’t forgiven Dan Rather. They still say Dan Rather hounded the president out of office. Well, the president was lying! As a responsible journalist, Dan Rather was doing what he was supposed to do. A lot of people don’t understand that.

I think all journalism should be advocacy journalism because advocacy journalism is nothing but the search for the truth and good solid investigative reporting. And once you have been down in the bottomless pit to find the truth and you come out—and I’m sure that if Dan Rather had found out the president was in fact innocent of any wrongdoing that he would have been the first 1 to say it. But as long as there is a doubt in the mind of a journalist, then you have to continue to search for the truth. And that’s what he was doing. That’s what advocacy journalism is—simply the quest for the truth, and I think that that is what more needs—that kind of journalism we need to do more of simply because here in 1974, people really need to know what the truth is. They need to know why inflation is racking this country. They need to know why we have an $82 billion defense budget for this year compared to a $43 billion defense budget in 1965. What is happening? Why is this budget so high? And we’re talking about inflation. Who is the real culprit? And the president is about to saddle us with a 5% surtax. Why do we have to bear this brunt when the government is really the 1 that’s at fault—the bureaucracy? Advocacy journalism—there just needs to be more of it.

Interviewer
0:39:42.7 You’re involved in journalism on both levels—both the newspaper and broadcasting. Do you differentiate between the 2 as seeing any major differences between the 2?

Thomas Wright
No, I don’t see any major differences between the 2. There’s just difference—the difference I see is the way that it’s done—put together. For instance, I was talking with the TSU journalism class yesterday, and I was telling them the basic difference in print and broadcasting is that in print you’ve got galleys and galleys and galleys in which you can develop your story. You can type page after page after page. In broadcasting it’s just not that—you just don’t have that kind of time to develop a story. Where I can turn in 5 typewritten pages for a story over at Forward Times, I have to do it in 40 seconds here which means 8 lines. I don’t see any major difference in the 2.

Interviewer
Is there any difference in as far as where the emphasis is placed in each?

Thomas Wright
There shouldn’t be. There is in some papers. In the Post and Chronicle—when you look at whose needs are these people serving then you get into a philosophical conversation on big business and people and why I feel that some newspapers are very interested in big business over some radio and television stations.

Interviewer
0:41:07.2 Speaking of philosophy, what is your philosophy as far as news and journalism in general is concerned?

Thomas Wright
I think I’ve probably covered it. To narrow it down, my philosophy of news is that news is what people are talking about, that news is what people need to know in order to make it through the day. The news is also providing people with that lift or that incentive that will help them deal with the complex issues of this time. Being a good journalist is simply being able to take some very complex issues and some very complex stories and translate them into language that people can understand. If we do that then we have done our job as responsible journalists.

Interviewer
Speaking of responsible journalists, I know you’re very interested in making new responsible journalists. Let’s talk a little bit about your intern program. Could you tell me when you got it started?

Thomas Wright
The intern program started back in 1971 shortly after I had been in it. There’s really no way that I could have gotten into broadcast journalism had it not been for someone taking an interest in me and saying alright, Wright. You can write but you can’t talk worth a damn. The way you pronounce words is atrocious. And I began to think about it, and I said you’re right. Most of the speaking problems I had were cultural—simply a part of my socialization was ain’t, and even though I did not write ain’t, I said it in everyday speech. I would not pronounce G’s on the end of my -ING words. I had a lot of problems. I had to overcome them, but I could not have done it had there not been anyone who was willing to take the time to help me.
The great hue and cry was from broadcasters. We can’t find any qualified black people to do these jobs. We’d love to hire them if we could find them. Broadcasters have a responsibility in training people simply because blacks have been excluded from the media for so many years, and because of this exclusion we’re behind. In 1971, shortly after I had been an intern and felt that I was competent enough to teach somebody else those things that I had learned, I started pulling people in. One of the first ones was Elma Guerra—a Mexican-American woman who is now over at Channel 13. I pulled her into the station to produce minority public affairs—Randy and I did—Chicanas and Chicanos. Eventually that was able to integrate into Insight. But Elma was the first 1.

0:44:10.4 There have been a lot of success stories as far as the interns are concerned. Elma is now at Channel 13. Another 1 of my interns was Suzette Smith who is now at WFAA up in Dallas. Another 1 was LeBaron Taylor, who is now at KTRE-TV in Lufkin. Another 1 of our interns was Morris Pyle who is now over at Channel 11. Another intern was Amalore Rodriguez, who is now over at KTRH. And there are others that I can’t think of offhand. But these were all people who were dedicated to broadcast journalism and the communities from which they came—whether it was the Mexican-American community or the black community. They were grassroots people. They had an interest in things that were going on in the community as far as the social conditions and recognized that the broadcast media was 1 of the best ways to go about implementing change simply because they could at 1 time tell hundreds of thousands of people the story, and that’s why they’re so spread out now. I tell them all—I say don’t stay in Houston because I can handle this in Houston. Go somewhere else and spread the gospel and take the message to the people.

The internship program is a good 1 because we train journalists. Now I have 3 interns. One is Mexican-American named Juan Campos, and Helen Sanders who is a black woman, and JoAnn Valley, another black woman. The intern program depends—how long a person stays an intern depends on that person. If they’re willing to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, they’ll be an intern for about 6 months. If they don’t want to work that long, then they’ll be an intern for about a year. It’s a very successful program because when they leave here they know what broadcast journalism is all about. They know how powerful the media is, and they know what to do in a particular situation. They’re some of the best investigative reporters in their respective cities right now.

 

Interviewer
The Columbia University training of minority journalists recently is in danger of being phased out because of lack of funds. Do you see this as a trend as far as minority journalism programs are concerned?

Thomas Wright
0:46:45.5 That is not the real reason Columbia is phasing that program out. I was up in New York a few weeks ago, and I talked with Fred Friendly who is sort of running the program. The real reason the program is being phased out at Columbia—you have to remember how their program started. It started back during the days when we were having the race riots across the country and people were saying we need more and more blacks on the air. That’s when broadcasting was saying we can’t find any, and they started the program. Now Friendly and the people up at the Ford Foundation decided that the program in itself was discriminatory against black people even though it was training every summer 40 or 50 black kids to become journalists—either print or broadcast. It was discriminatory because there were just as many blacks who were enrolling in the winter program at Columbia who had to scrape together $5000 to go to that Master’s program. They had to be college graduates to get into that Master’s program in the winter, and these black kids were saying hey, something is wrong because when we come here and we spend our $5000 we get our degree, we work hard, and then when it’s all over we have to pound the pavement in order to find a job. But in the summer program those kids come there—it’s free to them. They get an allowance every week while they’re there. Plus, when they graduate at the end of the intensive summer program, they have a job. So, the decision was made to close it.

I think what Fred Friendly says—and what I feel has to happen—is that broadcast organizations across the country—that these broadcast organizations are going to have to take it upon themselves to train 2 and 3 blacks at a time. There’s room in them. Excuse me. I was talking to the people over at TSU yesterday. They’re getting ready to separate their school of communications. There was 1 glaring error in their proposal that they’re going to take before the college coordinating board, and the glaring error is that they are not including a work-study program which can be easily accomplished in cooperation with the broadcasters. It would not cost the school a penny. It will simply mean that a student would spend 3 hours a day, 3 days a week working in an actual news operation or a production operation or a programming operation. I understand that not everybody who goes to a school of communications has to come out as a journalist. We’ve got all kinds of jobs—production, engineering—all over the place in a radio station—management—but that they spend this kind of time in a broadcast operation. I think that this is going to have to be the trend if schools like Texas Southern University, Howard—the other black schools that have schools of communication—if we intend to put people in then we cannot depend on programs like the 1 at Columbia. We cannot depend on a few radio stations in 1 city taking an intern or 2. It has to be done on a big scale and in a coordinated effort not only here at this radio station but all of the 30 broadcasters in the city of Houston getting together and saying, okay, I can take 3 or I can take 2—and actually train these kids so that when they do get out of school at the end of 4 years that they will be able to walk in and say I am qualified. I have experience on the air, and I have my degree.

Interviewer
I know that the program at Columbia was I think renamed for Michele Clark and you were speaking of the Michele Clark Award as well as the Edward R. Murrow Award. Could you tell me which programs you received awards for and what those various awards mean to you? I know you’re proud of those 2 especially.

Thomas Wright
0:51:08.3 The Michele Clark Award was for first place in race reporting, and I was especially proud of that award simply because it was the first 1—and will be the only 1—that was ever given out, and it came from a jury of black and Mexican-American reporters. I was being judged by my peers on my reporting of issues that affected race. The program that won the award was “Desegregation in Houston 20 Years after the Supreme Court Ruling.” It was a documentary that aired on Insight in November of last year. In that documentary I interviewed about 120 people which included everyone from Thurgood Marshall—who fought the desegregation case for the Supreme Court in ’54. It included talking with Dexel Lawson, the attorney who fought the original Brown case in Kansas. I talked with members of the school board here in Houston who are now trying to implement a desegregation plan. I talked with Hattie Mae White, a black woman who was on the school board during the time that Houston schools were coming up with all kinds of diverse—those diversionary plans back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I talked with Delores Ross who was a little girl in 1956 who is a grown woman now and who has her own child who is going to a segregated school here in the city of Houston. I talked with NAACP people who were instrumental in filing the Ross case. And just everybody that I could think of that had a perspective on desegregation in Houston 20 years after the Supreme Court ruling. It took a documentary form and it was 55 minutes long. That was the Michele Clark Award.

The other award this year—this year I think I won about 7 awards—but the other 1 of which I am most proud is the Edward R. Murrow Documentary Award that was presented by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. It was for my documentary on kidney disease and the poor—the Houston tragedy—which I discovered through an investigation over at Ben Taub Hospital—that 300 to 400 poor people were dying each year because of some of the policies and practices of Ben Taub Hospital, and people were being excluded from their hemodialysis program over there simply because they did not have a family member or a relative who was able to learn how to run a dialysis machine. I thought it was ludicrous, and that is the 1 show of which I am most proud that I did last year simply because there was so much change that came about as a direct result of it. And it was not only the documentary and the response from people when they heard the documentary but the followup that I did—and that the radio station allowed me to do—as far as contacting the public officials and the people who were directly responsible for that hospital over there and saying hey, this is going on. Maybe you didn’t know about it, but it’s something that ought to be changed. And it was, so that documentary was a very powerful documentary. It was a very moving documentary, and it has won 4—4 of the 7 awards I won this year have been with it.

Interviewer
0:54:49.3 I know you’ve won so many awards, but what are your hopes and aspirations for the future—both personally and professionally?

Thomas Wright
Well, what I really want to do is to be a network correspondent for the American Broadcasting Company. I think that I will be a network correspondent 1 of these days. I project it will probably be about a year and a half when I decide to leave this job then I will go to the network. The reason I want to be a network correspondent is very simple. That way I get to impact millions of people as opposed to thousands of people. When you’re a network correspondent at ABC you’re on the Reasoner-Smith Report that comes on at 5:30 every day, and it’s broadcast all across this nation, and I figure that I might sound conceited or something like that, but I think that there’s a way that I do a story that makes that story have much more impact—much more meaning to people who are listening to it, and that’s what I want to do. I think that the network is going to allow me to do it because I have demonstrated that I am a responsible journalist as well as being an advocacy journalist and that I search for the truth. The network isn’t afraid of the truth. If the truth hurts then so be it. That’s what I want to do professionally.

Personally—I don’t really have any personal ambitions other than to be a good broadcast journalist.

Interviewer
Well Mr. Wright, I certainly would like to thank you for taking—letting us have so much time out of your busy schedule.

Thomas Wright
It’s my pleasure.

Interviewer
Thank you.

0:56:42.6 (end of audio 2)