The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, is one of those remarkable works of history that make you see your own times more clearly. Subtitled The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, the book tells the story of how the press, after ignoring the issue for so long, played a crucial role in awakening Americans to the evil–and heroism–in their midst.
One of the great mysteries of American history–one that will never be fully solved–is why the North failed to acknowledge and protest Southern apartheid for so long. Gunnar Myrdal addressed this question in his seminal 1944 study, An American Dilemma, and explained, “A great many Northerners, perhaps the majority, get shocked and shaken in their conscience when they learn the facts.” Therefore, he added, “To get publicity is of the highest strategic importance to the Negro people” (italics in original).
“One of the secrets of the success of segregation,” the authors of The Race Beat explain, “had been the way newspapers had neglected it.” Before the marches and the violence of the civil rights era began, Southern newspapers “treated Negro communities as a creepy corner of the world not worthy of their readers’ time” (and once the clashes erupted, most of them would side with the murderous mobs, distorting the news accordingly). Few Northern newspapers, meanwhile, had correspondents assigned to the South, and those reporters who did cover the South were not on the race beat. Both influential and symbolic was the New York Times, whose correspondent, Virginia scion John Popham, arrived in Chattanooga in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, and proceeded to miss story after story. For instance, he reassured readers in the immediate aftermath of the Emmett Till murders that white Mississippians viewed the killing “with sincere and vehement expressions of outrage.” It was nonsense, but not so much as the unprecedented 50,000-word, eight-page Times special section on the region that managed to miss the story that would dominate coverage of the South for the coming decade.
Part of the Northern press’s initial problem derived from a syndrome that will prove familiar to those who witnessed the MSM’s misleading reporting about prewar Iraq, when reporters and their editors by and large passed along the views of the Bush Administration and its allies. Just as Judith Miller took stenography for Scooter Libby and Ahmad Chalabi, Northern reporters, editors and opinion-makers spent their time having brandy and cigars with the kinds of sources with whom they felt personally and socially comfortable. “Enlightened” Southern editors, especially Arkansas’s Harry Ashmore and Mississippi’s Hodding Carter Jr., sold them a Chalabi-like dream of steady, nonviolent progress that belied the violent savagery that lay in wait for those who stepped out of line. The Race Beat notes that both Ashmore and Carter were “endlessly chatty and charming,” and represented the kind of opinion and civic leaders that Northerners hoped to find in the South. As a result, these two relatively progressive gentlemen “soon found themselves frequently invited onto the national stage not as liberal dissenters in the South but as moderate defenders of the South, willing to go forth in the North and tell everybody to lay off.” In fact, when the protests came, these well-spoken moderates represented only themselves. Indeed, to most white Southerners, they were considered race traitors for consorting with the Northern enemy. (Socializing with actual black people would have been out of the question.) “The North didn’t want to hear from editors who were at heart white supremacists or implacable segregationists because they only proved how wide the gap was, how intractable the problem was,” the authors explain. Had members of the Northern media been able to shake off their own political and social preconceptions, they might have opened their eyes earlier to the unfolding story being reported in such marginal sources as the Baltimore Afro-American, whose reporters risked life and limb to cover beatings, lynchings and the like.
Once the heroic civil rights resisters got going, however, numerous news organizations rose to the occasion of what was to become the most dramatic story in America since the end of the Second World War. The Times distinguished itself by replacing Popham with Claude Sitton, a young Atlanta native pulled from the copy desk by managing editor Turner Catledge whose brave and energetic reporting provided the paper with some of the proudest moments in its history. Still, the Times, while an industry leader, serviced an elite audience. Undoubtedly, it was the raw, often violent footage on television that moved the most American hearts and minds. During the events of March 1965 in Selma, Alabama, ABC interrupted its Sunday Night Movie–I kid you not, Judgment at Nuremberg–to show viewers Sheriff Clark instructing his minions to “get those goddamned niggers” before the ensuing police riot decimated the peaceful protesters asking for nothing more than the right to vote.
While “the race beat” eventually came to represent one of American journalism’s finest hours, it is interesting to note that much of the best reporting demanded that the rules of objectivity be tossed out the window. Washington Post publisher Philip Graham even arranged for a phone call in which the Arkansas Gazette‘s Ashmore appealed to Deputy Attorney General William Rogers to urge immediate intervention by President Eisenhower to ameliorate the violence in Little Rock. Meanwhile, old habits died hard. CBS ended up firing correspondent Howard Smith for his refusal to treat the Southern mobs and the nonviolent protesters as moral equivalents–to report the story, as Smith described CBS’s attitude, that “truth is to be found somewhere between right and wrong, equidistant between good and evil.”
Finally, though the authors don’t make this connection, it’s easy to see the origins of Southern Republican hatred of the national media–particularly the Times. After all, things were just fine down South before those liberal Northern reporters started stirring things up, weren’t they?