MEMPHIS — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy has been celebrated this weekend in Memphis by National Conference for Media Reform speakers such as Bill Moyers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vermont Senator Bernie Sander, actor Danny Glover and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, often prodded the U.S. media to do a better job of covering the civil rights movement that he championed in the 195Os and 196Os.
King recognized that, while ending segregation and creating opportunities for African Americans was his first goal, getting the media to do its job had to be on the agenda.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner knew that organizing, marching and protesting in a vacuum would not bring change. The American people and their elected representatives needed to know that demands were being made for the redress of grievances.
As Jodie Allen, a veteran journalist with U.S. News and World Report, has noted, “Martin Luther King presciently saw that the pictures were worth a thousand words in showing this and that segregation could not persist in the face of illumination when the spotlights were on it.”
King believed that the generally favorable coverage of the 1963 March on Washington represented a breakthrough, writing in his autobiography that, “If anyone had questioned how deeply the summer’s activities had penetrated the consciousness of white America, the answer was evident in the treatment accorded the March on Washington by all the media of communication. Normally Negro activities are the object of attention in the press only when they are likely to lead to some dramatic outbreak, or possess some bizarre quality. The march was the first organized Negro operation that was accorded respect and coverage commensurate with its importance. The millions who viewed it on television were seeing an event historic not only because of the subject but because it was being brought into their homes.”
“Millions or white Americans, for the first time, had a clear, long look at Negroes engaged in a serious occupation,” King continued. “For the first time millions listened to the informed and thoughtful words of Negro spokesmen, from all walks of life. The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comments which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization, and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants. If the press had expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed. A great deal has been said about a dialogue between Negro and white. Genuinely to achieve it requires that all the media of communications open their channels wide as they did on that radiant August day.”
Unfortunately, the channels have not remained so wide open.
When King began in 1967 to express outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam, historian Taylor Branch recalls, “The reaction of the press was the most damaging public reaction that he had from the white press.” The Washington Post went so far as to declare that, with his opposition to the war, “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
Similarly, King’s attempts to advance an economic justice agenda –- the work of his final days as he came to Memphis to march with striking garbage collectors –- was dismissed as a both futile and dangerous.
Things have only grown worse as media consolidation has led to a dumbing down of our mass communications. As civic and democratic values have been replaced by the commercial and entertainment impulses of bottom-line driven big media companies, coverage of social and economic justice movements has declined. And the relatively serious examinations of fundamental questions of war and peace that were seen during the Vietnam War have been replaced by the embedded – or, as Pultizer Prize winning author Studs Terkel refers to it: “in bed with the administration” — coverage of the Iraq quagmire.
This weekend, as Americas prepare to mark the 78th anniversary of King’s birth, activists, journalists, academics, FCC commissioners and members of Congress have gathered in Memphis for the third National Conference for Media Reform. Jackson, Moyers, Sanders, Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley and 3,000 others are raising the alarm about the threat consolidation of media ownership and the embrace of bottom-line values poses to quality journalism and to democracy itself.
Dr. King understood that a free, diverse and adventurous press was essential to social progress. As Danny Glover explained in Memphis, the media-reform movement has embraced that understanding and are carrying it into the 21st century.
Recalling King’s observation that, “Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power,” Glover told the crowd, “The nettlesome task about which Dr. King spoke is still being carried out by people who embody character, courage and the fortitude to make decisions in support of truth not spin, people who critically embrace diversity and reject monopoly.”
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the national media reform network that has organized the National Conference on Media Reform.