Yesterday the world of television and black America lost a pioneer, but I lost a mentor. Gil Noble, the host of WABC-TV’s Like It Is, the longest running African-American targeted show in TV history, died at the age of 80.
The award-winning Like It Is first aired in 1968; Gil interviewed countless historical black figures like Fannie Lou Hamer, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Farrakhan, and Muhammad Ali.
Gil Noble came to television prominence after riots in Newark and Detroit gripped the nation and prompted location TV stations to hire black reporters and start black public affairs programs like Like It Is. Gil initially worked as a reporter for Like It Is and weekend anchor for WABC-TV before eventually becoming the permanent host of the program in 1975.
If there were no Gil Noble, theGrio.com would not exist. That statement isn’t mere platitude, but solid truth. In the summer of 1997 I had just finished my sophomore year in college and landed an internship at WABC-TV, New York’s local ABC station. I was assigned to Like It Is.
To be completely honest, when I first received word that I was going to work at Gil’s show I was disappointed. At that time the more coveted internship assignments at WABC-TV were Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and the EyeWitness News assignment desk. Although I grew up in the New York TV market, I was not aware of Gil Noble and Like It Is. After all, the show came on Sunday afternoons and, being raised in a uber-religious household, I can count on one hand how many Sunday church services I missed as a child.
I remember the first day I showed up for my internship and met Gil. He was very serious and peppered me with a line of questions about my background and my knowledge of the world, but more specifically issues relating to black America. As you can imagine, I was intimidated. Gil was a man who appreciated substance and didn’t suffer fools very easily.
The next week he made me watch hours and hours of Like It Is programs on Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and the civil rights movement. Gil was committed to our culture and our history, and the only thing he was more passionate about was making sure that our history would not be lost.
The start of my work day at Like It Is would consist of reading the newspapers and then going into Gil’s office to discuss with him what stories I had found. We would sit and talk for hours at times and this is where he became more than a boss but a true mentor, and my hero. He sensed that I had discomfort speaking in public and was determined to help me improve by having me read news articles aloud and then voicing my opinions on them.
The summer of 1997 brought two stories that allowed me to see Gil at his very best — the death of Malcom X’s widow Betty Shabazz and the Abner Louima police assault. Gil was great friends with influential African-Americans like Shabazz, and was able to offer insight into her life and legacy like no other. He was also a man who had his ear to the streets and understood the complex issues of black communities, including police brutality.
He wasn’t into covering fluff. He understood that our needs as a people were much too dire. Like It Is stayed on top of issues like housing, poverty, racial profiling, discrimination, and unemployment. The Like It Is studio set was often Gil at a table with his guest against a black backdrop. As an intern I thought it could use more color to liven it up, but in the age when news has become increasingly more sensationalized Gil wanted the show to be only about the issues.
Before my internship with Gil I had aspired to be a journalist, but he motivated me to be a black journalist. He taught me that pursuit of stories related to our struggles and triumphs were no less virtuous or important.
Gil remained a huge influence in my life and career well after my internship. The next year I directed my first student documentary entitled, Hidden Heroes: African-American Women in WWII. Gil not only offered his advice on the short doc but also agreed to do the voice-over narrative for it.
Looking back on my career, I can now pinpoint where the seed of my passion for black America was planted by Gil Noble. It’s the reason why I left my job at CBS in 2005 to work on a documentary about my life and the legacy of slavery called Meeting David Wilson, and it was why I developed and pitch the idea of theGrio, a news site devoted to news and perspectives from the black community.
It’s hard to imagine that I would have ever come up with the idea for theGrio, let alone be able to voice my ideas enough to pitch it to NBC, if Gil had never been a part of my life. While he will be missed, his legacy will continue in the many journalists he inspired, and certainly in the pages of theGrio.
Follow David A. Wilson on Twitter at @dawuud77