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'The Race Beat': Media in the Civil-Rights Era

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'The Race Beat': Media in the Civil-Rights Era

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'The Race Beat': Media in the Civil-Rights Era

'The Race Beat': Media in the Civil-Rights Era

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The recent book The Race Beat examines how the media covered the civil rights movement. Its co-author, a journalist with Southern roots, went on a mission to discover the era's heroes in the press.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

In the early 1960s, Americans got used to turning on the evening news and hearing reports like this…

(Soundbite of news report)

Mr. HAGAN THOMPSON (Reporter): This is Hagan Thompson at the State Office building in Jackson. James Meredith has just arrived. The crowd is booing lustily.

BRAND: That was September, 1962, when civil rights activist James Meredith attempted to register at the University of Mississippi. The national press corps was there to report it.

CHADWICK: A new book, "The Race Beat," takes a look at how the press covered the civil rights struggle while sometimes ducking for cover. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Race relations in the segregated South often operated on a don't ask, don't tell principal. Black and white folks usually avoided discussing race with each other unless something occurred that couldn't be ignored, like the murder of Emmett Till, which changed the way the mainstream press covered the South.

Mr. HANK KLIBANOFF (Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Co-author, "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation"): The nation's view was fed in large part by the attention that the press paid to the situation in 1955.

BATES: That's Hank Klibanoff, now editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's a native Alabaman and co-author with Gene Roberts of "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation." Klibanoff says the murder of the Chicago teen by two white adults in Money, Mississippi riveted the nation's attention. People were now focused not only on the crime, but on the conditions for blacks in the South.

In "The Race Beat" Klibanoff explains that many southern editors felt a strong need to support the status quo. Their editorial coverage was sympathetic to segregation, and they were angry that what they saw as a local issue was getting such intense, national attention.

Mr. KLIBANOFF: They did not believe that race was the story that these other reporters thought it was. They thought they were stirring up trouble, just in the same that they thought the civil rights forces were stirring up trouble.

BATES: But for these segregationist editors, the so-called race beat became increasingly problematic. Eventually, Klibanoff says, some of those editors convened a mini-summit. They wanted to come up with says to counteract what they saw as a tidal wave of negative and unfair coverage from the national press.

Mr. KLIBANOFF: And they came up with a whole lot of cockamamie ideas, including starting their own Pulitzer Prize just for Southern reporting, attacking the wire services with ridiculous requests that they try to cover other things besides race. And all it did was exhaust the Southern segregationist editors, and they didn't get very far.

BATES: In fact, reporters came in ever larger numbers than before. Editors around the country had finally begun to understand the magnitude of this story. The race beat had hurdled to a speedy adolescence a mere two years after Emmett Till's murder. Here in this tape, a reporter's trying to describe the frenzy as a white mob rushes to prevent black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Eyes on the Prize")

Unidentified Man: You can see from here some of the action occurring down there…

(Soundbite of crowd screaming)

BATES: That's archival tape from the PBS series, "Eyes on the Prize." The resistance to integrating Central High was a crisis for the nation and the Eisenhower administration. Journalists from around the country and globe came to the Arkansas capital to chronicle this racial turmoil. Hank Klibanoff says up until Little Rock, black reporters operated in relative safety under often hostile conditions in the South. But at Central High, things got worse.

Mr. KLIBANOFF: Black reporters who were trying to cover the enrollment of nine black students were brutally beaten.

BATES: Black editors better than anyone understood the importance of covering the movement. But as resistance to integration became more bloody, they were sometimes reluctant to put their staff in harm's way. That had its costs, according to Hank Klibanoff.

Mr. KLIBANOFF: You could say that beginning in 1957, the black press lost its front row seat on what would become the civil rights movement.

BATES: Eventually, black reporters did return to cover the struggle with their white colleagues. Together, they forced the nation to pay attention to one of the most important human rights movements in modern history. Hank Klibanoff believes that covering the race beat was shining moment in the history of the American press.

Post-segregation, race issues are more complicated and literally less black and white. In the future, says Klibanoff, work on race reporting will require this…

Mr. KLIBANOFF: To take each case one by one and to figure out what are the valuable issues here, so that we're not giving a knee-jerk reaction to anything.

BATES: If the race stories in recent years - from O.J. Simpson to the Duke Lacrosse case - are any indication, there will be plenty of occasion to test that standard.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Race Beat'

Cover

Day and night for weeks, reporters and editors for the Arkansas Gazette and its afternoon competitor, the Arkansas Democrat, buzzed around the city with a sense of high purpose and the adrenaline rush of a hot story that was drawing a national audience. Both the Gazette and the Democrat, which in those days could still find room on the front page for stories about $57 robberies, devoted massive space to their desegregation coverage.

Each paper churned out a dozen or more stories in the first days, most of them staff-written, for the next day's editions. Virtually every day, stories and photos about the school dominated the eight-column front of the Gazette, the front of the first section, and the general local news pages. On many days, at great cost, both papers would add pages, for which no advertising was purchased, to devote the equivalent of two to three full pages to the story. The daily mix included news from the White House, the governor, the mayor, and the streets. Small sidebars noted historical milestones or quirks. The papers gave summaries of editorial opinions from around the state and the world, as well as full texts of rulings by judges and speeches and press conferences by the president, the governor, and the mayor. The papers also carried a half-dozen race-related and school desegregation wire stories from elsewhere in the South.

Both newspapers' editorial pages were consumed by the issue. The Gazette, which added space for letters and printed as many as twenty-five on some days, explained to its readers that the tilt of its published letters was against Faubus because that was the tilt of the letters it received. The Democrat published mostly pro-Faubus letters because that was the overall bias in its mailbox.

Both had supported the Brown decision in 1954. Leading up to the opening day of school, both supported the compromise desegregation plan; the Democrat called it "exceptionally favorable." But the Gazette and Democrat were quickly perceived as representing two separate and opposing camps.

Ashmore's editorials remained steadfast throughout. They did not dwell on whether integration was good or bad — though The Negro and the Schools was the benchmark study in showing the failure of the dual education system. Ashmore instead focused the issue almost solely on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the law, the importance of obeying the court, and the utter futility of defying the federal government and courts.

Ashmore portrayed Faubus, in his "naked defiance," as the politically motivated captive of a "small and militant minority of whites." He outlined repeatedly how Faubus's words and actions contradicted his own prior commitments and how they attempted to rearrange the facts of recent history to fit his actions. When Faubus complained that the federal court was trying to force desegregation "overnight," Ashmore"s editorial, "Mr. Faubus Also Needs a Dictionary," noted that the Little Rock plan had been in the works for three years; the plan was designed "to accomplish the minimum integration over the longest period of time permissible," it was the subject of about two hundred speeches around town by the superintendent of education, and it fit Faubus's earlier call for voluntary, locally controlled desegregation as perfectly as any plan could.

When Faubus claimed that Ashmore and the Gazette "had misrepresented, slanted, distorted and colored the news in reference to me and Little Rock," Ashmore was able to examine his newspaper's own reporting and point out that the Gazette had published a verbatim transcript of every speech and news conference and public comment made by Faubus, and virtually every word he had uttered at any time other than in his sleep. "Indeed, the chances are that if the governor himself wants to find out what he actually said on some of those occasions, he will have to consult the files of the Gazette, which is the only complete source of record in existence."

A single Faubus speech could give Ashmore fodder for days, and the editor frequently offered two editorials on the subject each day. He hit Faubus head-on, not from behind, refusing time and again to poke fun at the governor, though opportunities to do so abounded. Faubus's thinking became increasingly murky and paranoid as the days went by, and he frequently made statements that contradicted either themselves or the truth, or both. He expressed concern, for example, that the White House had tapped his phones and that the feds were going to come into the Governor's Mansion and arrest him.

In the beginning, Ashmore resisted the easy shots, choosing instead to examine the marrow of Faubus's position. There was no evidence whatsoever, Ashmore wrote, that the city, when Faubus called out the National Guard, had been about to erupt in violence — and he cited the long list of people who had testified to that in federal court, including the mayor, police chief, school superintendent, school principal, and chairman of the school board. It was Faubus, Ashmore wrote, who had "invited violence and disorder." Faubus, in response, frequently attacked Ashmore as an "an ardent integrationist" whose reporters were "agents of an integrationist newspaper."

Faubus deeply resented the fact that Ashmore was the first person many visiting journalists met and that Ashmore seemed to influence them so easily. It grated the governor that Ashmore and his colleagues would file their stories or editorials, then gather for long evenings of drinks and banter at the private Little Rock Club, where Negro waiters served them. The journalists joked that they were "the battle and bottle scarred" heroes of Little Rock. To Faubus, it was not a joke. He accused Ashmore and Hugh Patterson of luring the newsmen into their web "to indoctrinate them with a biased and prejudiced viewpoint toward me."

Ashmore, in response, was having increasing difficulty not holding Faubus up as a ludicrous but dangerous figure. When Faubus claimed to have discovered a plot by the Gazette's publisher to place a psychiatrist at one of Faubus's press conferences and report his findings to the Gazette's readers, Ashmore wrote that Faubus had again come up with a pinch of fabricated spice that "he delights in dropping into the political pot when it shows signs of simmering."

"Although a few of our readers have suggested that Mr. Faubus may be suffering from some aberrations," Ashmore added, "this newspaper has never been that charitable in its own view. We believe Mr. Faubus knows exactly what he is doing — and we suspect we have earned his wrath because through accurately reporting his devious course step by step, we have shown precisely where he is taking the people of his state in the furtherance of his political ambitions, and the terrible price all of us are going to have to pay as a result."

What's more, Ashmore said, it was unthinkable that the nation would let a governor invent an excuse to mobilize the National Guard, then use it to block a court order. This was the road to anarchy. Where was President Eisenhower in all of this? Ashmore wanted to know. He was keenly aware that Eisenhower had not liked the Brown decision, but the Supreme Court had ruled. Would it be obeyed? "The issue is no longer segregation vs. integration," the editor wrote. "The question now has become the supremacy of the government of the United States in all matters of law. And clearly the government cannot let this issue remain unresolved, no matter what the cost is to the community." Other liberal southern editors, such as Ralph McGill in Atlanta and Jonathan Daniels in Raleigh, shared many of Ashmore's concerns and expressed them in print. It would make it easier for the White House, when finally it acted, that southern editors had joined their northern colleagues in wanting the law upheld.

Ashmore contrasted Faubus's actions with those of Governor Luther Hodges of North Carolina, who had taken no stand either way as schools desegregated in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem on the same day Negro students were blocked in Little Rock. "The North Carolina governor simply said that 'North Carolinians do not like lawlessness' and made it quite clear that anybody who had other ideas would promptly be dealt with," Ashmore wrote. He pointed out that hecklers and a white boy who threw a stick at a Negro girl in Charlotte had quickly been "taken in hand" by local authorities and that the second day of school desegregation had been peaceful. "That," the editor wrote, "is how it could have been in Little Rock."

The Arkansas Democrat went the other way. From the moment Faubus thwarted the desegregation plan, the Democrat modified its earlier thinking. While the paper found opportunity to criticize Faubus, it drifted, after a period of sounding lost at sea, into the camp of states' rights. In its news pages, the Democrat was more inclined to publish rumors of hysteria, violence, and the potential for them both, stories sometimes planted by Faubus's forces to justify placement of the Guard. But the Democrat didn't duck the story. It, too, turned over acres of newsprint to produce a prodigious number of articles. And the Democrat had one thing the Gazette didn't have.

Through the paper's longtime political writer, George Douthit, the Democrat had access to Faubus. As the crisis opened, Douthit wrote a story portraying Faubus as a heroic figure working under enormous stress. On the first Sunday after school opened, the Democrat published the first of three exclusive interviews with Faubus. Another exclusive in the Democrat during the first week showed Faubus inside the Governor's Mansion running the government calmly and with great self-assurance. The Democrat also wrote a feature about a young Dutch girl who was attending school in Arkansas and who wanted to meet Faubus. She had heard many negative things about him in the European press, the article said, and she wanted to see for herself if he was as bad as portrayed. The story then provided a notable little detail: the Dutch girl was staying in the home of a Little Rock family: Democrat political writer George Douthit's.

Ashmore felt the Democrat was pandering to the governor and to popular opinion, taking advantage of the Gazette's decision to take the unpopular route, and getting fat on the Gazette's blood. The Gazette and Ashmore paid a price for their aggressive coverage and editorials. They became as much a target as the nine Negro students, and certainly a more accessible one. In 1957, the Gazette held a strong lead in circulation over the Democrat, owning 53 percent of the daily market and 55 percent of the Sunday subscribers. A year later, it had lost nearly 14 percent of its circulation daily and Sunday, as well as its lead over the Democrat. The Gazette's weekday advertising revenues dropped by nearly 13 percent from 1956 to 1958, and Sunday's fell by more than 8 percent. The paper lost more than $2 million. The Democrat's weekday ad revenues increased by 3 percent from 1956 to 1959, while its Sunday revenues jumped by nearly 10 percent.

Though Heiskell, Ashmore, and Patterson stood up to the pressure, they felt compelled at times to clarify — or perhaps muddle — their position. When the newspaper saw a copy of a letter that urged a boycott of businesses still advertising with the Gazette, Ashmore went so far as to write, "The Gazette has never advocated integration. The Gazette has never called for the breaking down of our segregation laws. The Gazette has consistently supported every legal effort to maintain the social patterns of segregation, and will continue to do so."

Personal threats became quite common for Ashmore. His home phone would ring constantly with warnings that snipers were trailing him, and his mail was filled with vile threats. He and Hugh Patterson would find some relief in telling the story of the subscriber who had written that she was so distraught by the Gazette's editorials that she had lost seven pounds. She urged the paper to keep it up for three more pounds.

While both the Gazette and Democrat provided better ongoing coverage of the Negro community than many southern dailies during ordinary times, neither newspaper broke through the protective cocoon that Bates, the NAACP, and the students' parents wove around the students. The cocoon allowed the Negro press inside, where it assumed its customary front-row seat at events the mainstream press never saw. Notably absent from the Gazette and Democrat were authoritative, consistent reports explaining what the students might do or how they, their parents, or the Bateses were reacting to developments. When the papers carried a response from Daisy Bates, rarely were more than two paragraphs printed. Both papers misspelled the names of the students early in the coverage, and neither devoted any time or space in the first days to providing profiles of the courageous students or an explanation of what they and their families were experiencing. When the newspapers did finally carry profiles, the Associated Press typically provided them, and they were short, shallow, and not prominently played.

What Moses Newson, Alvin Nall, and other Negro reporters couldn't get from the high school scene, they more than made up for with their access to the Negro community. They were part of the regular gatherings of the nine students, their parents, and Negro leaders and lawyers. Anyone wanting to know more about the Negro students and how they felt could turn to the stories written by Negro journalists. Encamping at the Bateses' home, the reporters got the story of the fear, travail, and determination that marked the lives of the students and their families. The New York Post's Ted Poston immediately began churning out a series of profiles, "Nine Kids Who Dared." Only through reading this series would one know, for example, that Gloria Ray wanted to be an atomic scientist.

Excerpted from The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Copyright © 2006 Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Excerpt is published by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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