johnson johnJohn Johnson

Class of 1961

Inducted 2000

When John Johnson was a student at City College, his primary interest was art, not television news, and his goal was to become a professor and a painter, not a broadcaster. As it happens, he did all of it, from teaching art at two universities to enjoying a 30-year career as an award-winning television newsman to becoming a full-time painter whose works are exhibited in Europe and New York.

He was born on June 20, 1938 and brought up in Brooklyn’s Bedford- Stuyvesant section and in Harlem. As a student at CCNY, he told The Daily News in 2012, he majored in art and took not a single course in journalism. “I was going to be a professor and a painter — a professor so that I could make a living,” he said.

After graduation, he taught art at Indiana University and at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In 1968, during the height of the civil rights movement, Johnson was asked to contribute to a book of essays called “The Black Power Revolt.” What he wrote caught the attention of ABC News and Johnson was hired as a producer, director and writer of documentaries, including “Welfare Game” and “Strangers in Their Own Land: The Puerto Ricans.” It was the start of a new chapter in his life.

In 1971, ABC dispatched him to Attica to report on the uprising by inmates. A year later, he moved to WABC-TV in New York, becoming one of the stalwarts of the original Eyewitness News team, where he was an award-winning reporter and anchor for more than two decades. During that time, Johnson contributed stories from some of the world’s hot spots. In the early 1990s, he filed from Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq during Operation Desert Shield and its aftermath; Somalia, to report on UN peacekeeping efforts; Bosnia during the civil war; and he made three trips to South Africa to cover the presidential election of Nelson Mandela. In addition, Johnson reported from Jerusalem on Israeli and Arab reactions to the Rabin-Arafat peace treaty, and he filed a series of reports from Egypt on the growing threat of terrorism. He also covered the 1992 presidential campaign, traveling with Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. As an undercover reporter, he probed the sale of contaminated goods to New York City food stores; the seedy and dangerous world of illegal social

johnson john exhibit of his patients
John Johnson at an exhibit of his paintings in 2012

clubs; and the pattern of abuses and violations by city marshals who were using the scofflaw program for their own financial gain.

After 22 years, Johnson left WABC-TV and moved to CBS/Channel 2 News as an anchor in 1995 and to NBC/News Channel 4 as an anchor and reporter in 1996. He retired as a television newsman in 1997, to devote himself to caring for an ailing father and to resume painting full time. Along the way, he collected eight Emmys and a slew of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Association of Black Journalists, a New York State AP Broadcasters Association honor, a UPI National Broadcast Award, and, in 1994, a Townsend Harris Medal from the College.

His autobiography, “Only Son: A Memoir,” was published in 2002. Johnson has been featured in “Eyes on the Prize,” the acclaimed documentary about the civil rights movement, and he has been cast as himself in the feature films “Cop Land” and “54.