Chester Bruce Johnson, a veteran television anchorman in the greater Washington area and trusted voice on WUSA9 for more than four decades, died of a heart attack Sunday, April 3 in Delaware at the age of 71.
Johnson displayed passion, creativity, street savvy and tenacity throughout his career. And while he earned multiple awards for delivering breaking news, he set the bar for producing innovative news segments that both challenged and debunked long-held stereotypes about members of the Black community.
Even after retiring on December 31, 2020, he continued to share his gift as a storyteller committed to uncovering and reporting the truth, even if it meant breaking with the status quo. Free from the demands of day-to-day assignments, he maintained his passion as a journalist, completing three books, mentoring young reporters and accepting on air projects which he often produced from his home.
Johnson was born in Louisville, June 5, 1950. He graduated in 1973 from Northern Kentucky University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. In 1975, he received a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Cincinnati. When he moved from Cincinnati to the District to begin his on air tenure on March 16, 1972, he would count as the youngest reporter to ever deliver the news in the D.C. market.
Prior to his death, Johnson often spoke about the high level of stress that he and his colleagues routinely faced in the media industry. He survived several health challenges that could have ended his career including an earlier heart attack and cancer. In addition, he successfully quit decades-long habits of both smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol after reaching out for and accepting help.
Earlier this year, Johnson joined his friend and another D.C. media legend, Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes on the publication’s weekly Facebook Live broadcast, WIN TV (Jan. 28, 2022).
Their interview began with the usual pleasantries after which Johnson acknowledged in efforts to describe their friendship, “We go way, way back!”
Barnes asked Johnson how reporters like him and Sam Ford, both Black stalwarts in an industry that has undergone significant changes in recent years, had been successful in gaining the trust of so many viewers and residents in the District.
“Building people’s trust was my first priority when I became a TV reporter in D.C.,” he said. “I especially concentrated on communities in Wards 7 and 8 which I remember one of my editors referring to as a separate city. Once people realized that I wasn’t there to hurt them or to tell the same old, stereotypical stories, they welcomed me with open arms. And I was familiar with the world in which they lived that was often very different from other parts of the city. Southeast communities like Anacostia reminded me of the neighborhood where I grew up back home in Louisville.”
Barnes turned the conversation to Johnson’s autobiography, “Surviving Deep Waters,” and asked him to highlight a few of the vignettes included in the book.
“The title came from something we children did all the time for fun,” he said. “Even though we couldn’t swim, we’d swing out on the branches over the water for the thrill of it. Then we’d let go of the rope and drop like a rock into the water. After that, we’d dog paddle like crazy so we could get back to shore and not be swept down the river by the current.”
“That’s really how I approached life and attempted to deal with life as a Black youth and later as a Black man. There are deep waters everywhere and we have to find a way to survive the currents. Fortunately, I survived those waters and found ways to thrive, unlike so many others.”
Johnson continued, emphasizing that he had always been “willing to take risks because I was determined to survive,” noting that he would be the first in his family to graduate from college while avoiding prison which claimed two of his brothers.
Johnson described how he took several segues before ending up a reporter.
“When I finished college and started working in Cincinnati, I was grateful to have gotten out of Louisville – it was a dead end for young Black men like me,” he said. “I was part of the affirmative action hires, along with two other women. But I had gotten in the door.”
“D.C. was an eye-opening experience because while I was good at my job, I knew I wasn’t as good as most of the other Blacks who worked in the industry. That made me learn as quickly as possible and to work as hard as I could. As time went on, Black reporters like me finally got the opportunity to cover ‘our’ stories – not just the bad ones but those that showed another side of African Americans. I was determined to tell it like it was without attempting to appease white people. That was something that Blacks had not been able to do in the past.”
Johnson would become one of the many reporters who covered D.C. politics, including the career of former mayor Marion Barry.
Current Mayor Muriel Bowser shared his views about Johnson and his contributions to the District.
“Bruce Johnson was a giant of D.C. journalism – a father, grandfather, husband and proud author,” she said in a tweet.
“Like many Washingtonians, he’s been a part of my life since I was a little girl, delivering the news and giving voice to D.C. residents. I’m heartbroken. Rest in Heaven.”
WJLA7 news reporter Sam Ford told the Washington Informer, “Bruce was certainly a great reporter. But he was not only good but he had the ability to be at the right place at the right time.”
Veteran reporter and political analyst Tom Sherwood reflected about his friend and colleague of many years.
“Bruce and I competed with each other but we had the best time at hundreds of events,” he said. “We would share information, insights and our speculations. Bruce was a gentleman who showed that you could be competitive without being an enemy.”
Dr. Cherie Ward, director of the Jim Vance Media Center at Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast also remembered the difference that Johnson made in her life.
“I used to go out on stories with Brice Johnson when I was an intern,” she said. “He was a crucial player in journalism and media in Washington D.C. He was true to the creed that we recite and practice as Vance Scholars in Journalism.”
Johnson was born in Louisville, June 5, 1950. He graduated in 1973 from Northern Kentucky University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. In 1975, he received a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Cincinnati.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Lori, three children, Brandon, Kurshanna and Carolyn, and four grandchildren.