Gail Christian, Trailblazing News Correspondent, Dies at 83

Gail Christian, who broke barriers as a Black on-air correspondent and rose to national prominence at NBC News and PBS, died on April 12 in Los Angeles. She was 83.

The cause was complications of recent intestinal surgery, said her spouse, Lucy DeBardelaben.

Ms. Christian overcame a troubled youth — including a prison stint for armed robbery — to carve out a career as a prominent television journalist and news executive in the 1970s and ’80s, an era when the industry was dominated by white men.

She became a visible presence in American living rooms with her coverage for NBC News of the trial of Patricia Hearst, the newspaper heiress who was kidnapped in 1974 by a band of leftist revolutionaries called the Symbionese Liberation Army, and who was convicted two years later for participating in a bank robbery with the group.

But for Ms. Christian, it was not enough simply to gain exposure as a rare Black face on the evening news.

“I always wanted to be ‘the Black reporter,’ as in covering Black stories,” she said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1986. “I felt that was the reason I was there. I didn’t resent it in the least. I felt then, as I feel now, it is very dangerous for a group of people to live in a society where they are not allowed to interpret themselves.”

She made good on that mission with features like “A Country Called Watts,” an hourlong special for NBC News in 1977 that explored the efforts by residents of that Los Angeles neighborhood to come together and reassess the bloody civil disturbance that had occurred in response to police brutality in 1965, and to rebuild burned-out blocks in the face of perceived government indifference and continuing police harassment.

“Gail kept pushing to get the faces and voices of Black people on TV news, so that footage of Black men in handcuffs would no longer be the only images of Black people that white viewers could see,” Gary Gilson, the former faculty director of a summer program for minority students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said in a phone interview. “And her pioneering role as a Black news reporter allowed young Black kids to see, many for the first time, someone admirable on TV who looked like them. It gave them recognition and hope.”

After two years at NBC News, Ms. Christian became the news director of the public station KCET in her native Los Angeles, where she created a “60 Minutes”-style investigative series called “28 Tonight” (the station was on Channel 28).

That program featured several award-winning segments, including one about a banking scandal that hurt low-income communities and another about a chemical spill in Orange County that caused illnesses in the area, each of which won a Peabody Award.

In 1981 she moved to Washington, where she started a nearly decade-long run as the news director for the Public Broadcasting Service.

“Ever since I’ve been in the business, I always wanted to be one of the brass who go off in that little room and decide what will be covered and by whom,” she said in a 1976 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “But at NBC, I never saw any women go into that little room. Nor any minorities. I figured this was my chance.”

“As Bobby Seale said,” she added, referring to one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, ‘Seize the time.’”

Gail Patricia Wells was born on Feb. 20, 1940, in Los Angeles, one of four children of Edwin Wells, who worked on an assembly line for Hughes Aircraft Company, and Lucille (Scruggs) Wells, who owned a beauty college in the Leimert Park neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. (She later adopted Christian, a name from her mother’s side of the family, as her professional surname.)

Ms. Christian grew up in Venice, Calif., and spent three years studying world history at California State University, Los Angeles, before dropping out to join the Air Force in 1962. She fell in with a rough crowd after she was discharged, and in 1965 she was convicted of armed robbery after a stickup at a hotel.

The robbery, which yielded less than $100, landed her at the California Institute for Women in Chino for 18 months.“It was kind of absurd, now that I look back on it,” Ms. Christian said in a 1976 interview with TV Guide. “I really didn’t need to do it. I had a loving family, unlike a lot of others in prison. I was just kinda pushed outta shape at the time.”

After she had served her time, a fellow parolee who was working as a switchboard operator at The San Francisco Examiner gave her a tip that the newspaper was planning to hire two Black reporters to diversify its staff. Without any experience, Ms. Christian considered the opportunity a long shot, but she talked her way into an apprentice role by stretching the truth.

“I gave them this song and dance about having worked on this small Black paper that was burned out by the Klan,” she told The Tribune.

In 1970, she took part in an 11-week summer program for minority students in broadcast journalism at Columbia. (Geraldo Rivera was a classmate.) Two years later, she was hired by KNBC, the local NBC affiliate. She worked there for six years before being hired by NBC News.

Her tenure at PBS ended in 1989, shortly after the network found itself embroiled in controversy for airing a pro-Palestinian documentary called “Days of Rage,” which Ms. Christian had acquired and was responsible for vetting. A news report asserted that the film had been backed in part by undisclosed Arab funding, which its producer denied.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Christian said that she had resigned from PBS for other reasons. “You burn out because this is a no-win situation,” she said. “You get silence when things go well and outrage when there are questions.”

She eventually settled in Palm Springs, Calif., with Ms. DeBardelaben, whom she married in 2016. In 2003, the couple started the annual Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival.

In addition to Ms. DeBardelaben, Ms. Christian is survived by a grandson. Her daughter, Sunday Barrett, died in 2019.

While Ms. Christian kept quiet about her prison time early in her career, she finally decided to divulge it to a sympathetic executive at NBC. “The guy just looked at me,” she recalled. “He says, ‘I haven’t got enough problems. I have to listen to yours? Get outta here.’ Never heard another word.”