WMAQ TV Reporter Warner Saunders passes away at 83
Iconic African American television journalist Warner Saunders dies. Saunders was a brilliant reporter who fairly covered the news and sympathized with those who were oppressed.
By Ray Hanania
Warner Saunders was almost one-of-a-kind. Not only was he a true journalist, he was also a genuine human being who cared about others.
I was privileged to have worked as an associate producer on a project Warner Saunders narrated after leaving the Chicago Sun-Times as a City Hall reporter, called “A Different Kind of Teacher.”
I got a chance to help script and produce the series which looked at the importance of mentoring to young people to expand their educational excellence with the help of leaders in the Chicago business and professional community.
Saunders narrated the reporter which was broadcast on WMAQ TV and he was perfect, in part because he had been a teacher himself. He understood the challenges students face. The series examined the impact of mentoring on students in several Chicago public schools.
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But I also had a chance to talk to him several times about the Middle East. African Americans have always been supportive of the oppression that the Palestinians and many Arabs have experienced in the Middle East. He was very sympathetic. He explained to me one of the challenges was getting “alternative voices” to be heard in the mainstream American news media.
An icon of the mainstream American news media, Saunders didn’t call the media biased, although I did many times. I described the racism I had to face as an Arab American when I tried to advance information about Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, both while a reporter at the Daily Southtown Newspapers and at the Chicago Sun-Times. It was impossible. Reporters who either had direct ties to Israel, or felt anything pro-Palestinian would be anti-Israel and anti-Jewish would often push back hard to prevent balanced information from being published. Most of the time, the mainstream American news media only publishes one side of the story. Saunders agreed with me.
It was a touchy issue, of course. Anytime you criticize Israel, instead of addressing the facts or the issues at hand, defenders of Israel will instead resort to demonization, namecalling and accusations of you being “anti-Semitic.” The accusation often shut-down the discussion. No news media, as fearless as they often claimed to be, would dare to stand up to that kind of vicious assault.
I had met Saunders as a reporter when I was covering Chicago City Hall between 1976 and 1992. Saunders, like many of the city’s bigtime TV reporters, would often need help being brought up to speed on City Hall and political developments. So they would often approach reporters at the Hall for help. As a community-based newspaper reporter at the time, working with the Southtown from 1978 through 1985, Saunders and other TV reporters found it easier to approach me. The Southtown focus was mostly community-driven, while the Tribune and Sun-Times reporters were in serious competition with the big TV stations.
Saunders helped me get hired by WMAQ TV in the 1980s for a small retainer of $75 a month that was approved by the Southtown’s editors. They would step into the Hall and I would bring them up to speed on the basics of the story. And, during the administrations of Mayor Jane M. Byrne and then Mayor Harold Washington, events and stories sped by so quickly that it was easy to miss background that was crucial to a story.
Saunders was just a good guy. He passed away on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018 at the age of 83. He was always fair. He was a gentleman. He was always courteous. And most importantly, when he spoke about equality he meant it for all.
Here’s some bio background on Warner’s life and retirement:
Saunders’ primary co-anchor in the NBC 5 evening newscasts was Allison Rosati. A Chicago native, Saunders held a bachelor’s degree from Xavier University and a master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University. He and his wife, Sadako, lived in Chicago.
Saunders was a member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame and the Chicago Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Silver Circle. He was once President of the Chicago Association of Black Journalists (1996–97). He produced a series of reports from South Africa in 1990 on the historic release of Nelson Mandela, culminating in the documentary titled South Africa: What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Saunders came to WMAQ from WBBM where he was Director of Community Affairs, host of Common Ground, and a children’s show known to many kids as The Good Gang Express.
He portrayed a news anchorman in the second season of the drama series ER, the show also being set in Chicago. He played a similar role in the second season of The West Wing.
Saunders was a former public school teacher, youth worker and Boys Club Executive Director. A documentary for Chicago’s WBBM-TV, The End of the Line, spurred investigations of local gangs. His teaching career includes Chicago Public Schools, National College of Education (now National Louis University), Malcolm X College, Northeastern Illinois University, and Indiana University where he was voted teacher of the year for two consecutive terms.
Saunders retired from the 5 PM and 6 PM newscasts and retired from the 10 PM newscast on May 20, 2009. He planned to pursue “diversity education”.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Saunders wasn’t afraid to challenge the big names in Chicago media, accusing former Chicago newspaper media and TV columnist Robert Feder of “racism” during Feder’s career at the Sun-Times. (See Chicago Tribune column.)
His career in broadcasting was honored by the Museum of Broadcast Communications on May 16, 2009 during “A Salute to Warner Saunders”, an event held at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago.
He won 19 Emmy Awards for news, sports, documentaries, children’s shows, talk shows, and town meetings. Other awards included the Illinois Broadcasters Association Public Service Award, the Gabriel Award, The Ohio State Award, and the 1999 Hull House Jane Addams Award for his commitment to the Chicago community.