Gail Christian, Trailblazing News Correspondent, Dies at 83

In the 1970s it was unlikely for a Black woman to have an on-air career, especially one that had been imprisoned for armed robbery. However, she broke through barriers.

Gail Christian, Trailblazing News Correspondent, Dies at 83

Gail Christian died in Los Angeles on April 12, 2019. She was 83. She was 83.

Lucy DeBardelaben, her spouse, attributed the cause to complications from recent intestinal surgery.

Ms. Christian, who had a troubled childhood -- which included a stint in prison for armed robbery - was able to carve out an impressive career as a television journalist and news executive during the 1970s and 1980s. This was when the industry dominated by men of color.

She was a familiar face in American homes when she covered the trial for NBC News, of Patricia Hearst. The newspaper heiress was abducted in 1974 by a group of leftist revolutionary called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Two years later, Patricia Hearst was convicted of participating in a robbery of a bank with the group.

It was not enough for Ms. Christian to be a rare Black woman on the evening news.

In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, she stated, "I always wanted be the Black reporter" as in covering Black story. 'I thought that was why I was there. I did not resent this in the slightest. I thought then and I still think now that it's dangerous for people to live in societies where they can't express themselves.

She fulfilled that mission by producing features such as 'A Country Called Watts', an hour-long special on NBC News that examined the efforts of residents in that Los Angeles neighbourhood to come together, reassess and reevaluate the bloody civil unrest that occurred in 1965 in response to the brutality of the police, and rebuild burnt-out blocks despite perceived government indifference, and continued police harassment.

Gary Gilson, former faculty director of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's summer program for minorities, told me in a telephone interview that Gail was always pushing to have the voices and faces of Blacks on the TV news so that the images of Black men handcuffed would no longer represent the only Black people white viewers saw. Her pioneering role as Black news reporter enabled young Black children to see someone who looked like themselves on TV for the very first time. It gave them hope and recognition.

After two years working at NBC News in New York, Ms. Christian was appointed news director of KCET, a public broadcasting station located in Los Angeles. She created a '60 Minutes-style' investigative series entitled '28 Tonight'.

This program included several award-winning sections, including a segment about a bank scandal that affected low-income neighborhoods and another about an Orange County chemical spill that caused illness in the region. Each of these segments won a Peabody Award.

She moved to Washington in 1981, and began a career as the News Director for the Public Broadcasting Service.

In a 1976 interview, she told The Los Angeles Times that, "Ever since I started in this business, I have always wanted to be part of the brass, who decide in that small room what is covered by whom and how." 'But I never saw a woman go into that small room at NBC. Minorities were not allowed in the room. This was my chance.

She added: 'As Bobby Seale, one of the Black Panther Party's founders, said, "Seize the moment."'

Gail Patricia Wells is one of the four children born to Edwin Wells and Lucille Scruggs Wells in Los Angeles on February 20, 1940. Edwin Wells worked as an assembly-line worker for Hughes Aircraft Company while Lucille owned a beauty school in South Central Los Angeles' Leimert park neighborhood. She later adopted Christian as her professional name, which is a family name that comes from her mother.


Ms. Christian was born in Venice, Calif. She studied world history for three years at California State University in Los Angeles before joining the Air Force in 1963. After she was discharged from the Air Force, she fell into a rough group. In 1965, she was convicted for armed robbery following a mugging at a local hotel.

She spent 18 months at the California Institute for Women, Chino, for a robbery that netted less than $100. In a 1976 TV Guide interview, Ms. Christian stated that the robbery was 'a bit absurd'. I didn't have to do it. I was fortunate to have a loving and supportive family. I was pushed out of shape at that time.

A fellow parolee, who worked as a switchboard agent at The San Francisco Examiner after she served her sentence, gave her the tip that The San Francisco Examiner was planning to hire Black reporters in order to diversify their staff. Ms. Christian, who had no experience, thought the chance was unlikely, but she managed to talk her way into a trainee role by lying.

She told The Tribune, 'I sang and danced about working on this little Black paper which was burnt out by the Klan.'

She participated in a summer program at Columbia University for minorities in broadcast journalism in 1970. Geralddo Rivera, a fellow student, was her classmate. She was hired two years later by KNBC, a local NBC affiliate. She spent six years at KNBC before she was hired by NBC News.

In 1989, her tenure at PBS came to an end, just after the network was embroiled in controversy over airing "Days of Rage," a pro Palestinian documentary that Ms. Christian acquired and was in charge of vetting. In a news report, it was claimed that the film's producer had denied a claim made by NBC News that it had been partially funded with undisclosed Arab funds.

Ms. Christian revealed in an interview with The New York Times that she resigned as a PBS employee for other reasons. She said, 'You get burned out because it's a lose-lose situation.' "You get silence when everything goes well, and outrage when questions are raised."

She married Ms. DeBardelaben in 2016, and they settled in Palm Springs. The couple founded the Palm Springs Women's Jazz Festival in 2003.

A grandson is also left behind by Ms. Christian, in addition to Ms. DeBardelaben. Sunday Barrett, her daughter, died in 2019.

Ms. Christian, who kept her prison sentence a secret early in her career for fear of being criticized by her colleagues at NBC, decided to finally tell NBC's sympathetic executive about it. She recalled, "The guy looked at me." He says, "I don't have enough problems." Never hear another word.