Reporting on Civil-Rights Reporting

You'd think somebody would have scooped Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff and written a book like "The Race Beat" decades ago. But maybe it's just as well: it's hard to imagine who'd be better qualified to tell the story of the press (now the "media") and America's civil-rights movement. Both men grew up in the South—Roberts in North Carolina, Klibanoff in Alabama—and both worked at many of the newspapers, Southern and Northern, large and small, which they're now well-positioned to write about. (Roberts became executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of The New York Times; Klibanoff was a reporter in Mississippi, Roberts's deputy at the Inquirer and is now managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) Roberts, moreover, was there. In 1960, he was at the meeting where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born. In 1965, during a racial crisis in Georgia, he tried to interview a state legislator and peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter, who "latched the screen door and mumbled that he had 'nothing to say' to anyone from The New York Times."

"The Race Beat"—as the title doesn't suggest—is more than a book about how reporters and editors covered the period from 1954 (when Brown vs. Board shot down the notion of "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites) through the passage of civil-rights and voting-rights bills in 1964 and '65, and on to the end of the movement's great period soon afterward. For one thing, it serves as a crisis-by-crisis refresher course in civil-rights history. Lest anybody forget how deadly serious those times were, here's the sequence: Brown; the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till; the Montgomery bus boycott; the closing of the schools in Little Rock; the sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.; the violence at Ole Miss when James Meredith tried to enroll; the dogs and firehoses in Birmingham; the murder of Medgar Evers; the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church with four young girls inside; the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Miss.; the bloodbath in Selma, Ala., as marchers en route to Montgomery hit a wall of troopers and freelance thugs while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and just when Selma was starting to calm down, the murder of the white volunteer Viola Liuzzo.

But most of all, "The Race Beat" shows how the press and the story they covered became inextricable. As Roberts and Klibanoff put it, "There is little in the civil rights movement that was not changed by the news coverage of it. And there is little in the way that the news media operate that was not influenced by their coverage of the movement." The second point is the more obvious. Before the movement, Northern papers—even The New York Times—didn't cover the South, and white papers hardly knew a black community existed. (The black press had gotten away for years with speaking out powerfully against racial injustice—because whites had never heard of such papers, let alone read them.) Moreover, the civil-rights movement came of age just as television did. It was the movement, more than anything, that taught TV how to cover breaking news, and it took TV to give the news an unprecedented intensity. As the Times's television critic wrote after the March on Washington, the "drama of mass protest was brought to life in virtually every household in the nation, a social phenomenon inconceivable before the age of electronics … The gentle entrance and exit of so much petitioning humanity was an editorial in movement. Its eloquence could not be the same in only frozen word or stilled picture."

Meanwhile, to say that news coverage "changed" the movement is to put it mildly. Increasingly, civil-rights leaders managed, even created, events they knew the media would cover. Of course, there was nothing artificial about the oppression of blacks in George Wallace's Alabama in 1963, or about their outrage. But one Birmingham activist knew that police commissioner Bull Connor "would play the brutal antagonist role" and that Martin Luther King Jr. "would get the confrontation and the news coverage he wanted, if he came to Birmingham." In 1965, King and his colleagues chose Selma, Ala., as "a target city that would be to voting rights what Birmingham had been to public accommodations." And again, they cast their antagonist brilliantly: a county sheriff named Jim Clark who "had a hair-trigger temper and a propensity for violence, and believed in not just segregation but white supremacy. He also looked the part. He was beefy and topped off his uniform with a gold braided cap."

Sure enough, Clark allowed himself to be goaded: a black woman punched him, and he clubbed her in the head after deputies restrained her. And sure enough, The New York Times was there. The story made page one, with "a dramatic photograph of two deputies holding Mrs. Cooper down as Clark loomed over her with a nightstick." Less stupid racists caught onto the demonstrators' tactics and were appalled at how counterproductive such public violence was. An editorial in a local segregationist paper admitted that "though state and local police were to be but extras in the play to the television cameras, they upstaged the stars beyond the wildest dreams of King . . . We have made new civil rights legislation . . . almost a dead certainty." And King was determined not to let violence be suffered in vain. "At one point in Selma," Roberts and Klibanoff write, "Flip Schulke of Life magazine saw Clark's posse shove children to the ground. He stopped shooting photographs and began pushing the men away . . . 'The world doesn't know this happened, because you didn't photograph it,' King told Schulke later. 'I'm not being cold-blooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining in the fray'."

Schulke's intrusion into the events he was covering and King's tacit (and not so inaccurate) assumption that the press was there to help his cause, suggest the book's underlying theme: what is the media's function in society? Journalists and civilians alike would say it's to give the public the most complete information possible, and to report it objectively. Yet over and over, Roberts and Klibanoff tell about journalists obviously crossing the line, either intervening physically as Schulke did, and changing the events he was covering, or operating more subtly: black reporters helping prosecutors in the Till case, white Southern newsrooms serving as "adjunct investigative bodies" for law enforcement to get the goods on civil-rights leaders, a segregationist editor writing speeches for a senatorial candidate, an integrationist editor writing a speech for First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. But Ralph McGill, the liberal editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who's one of the book's heroes, believed the "cult of objectivity" sometimes conflicted with the truth.

And the CBS reporter Howard K. Smith, in trouble with his bosses over a documentary called "Who Speaks for Birmingham," thought it was absurd to "balance" the coverage: would the network, as Roberts and Klibanoff paraphrase the case Smith made to CBS chief William Paley, "give the same weight to Bull Connor's notion of law as it would to the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions"? Smith wondered if objectivity meant "that truth is to be found somewhere between right and wrong, equidistant between good and evil." (Paley said he'd heard "this junk" before, and Smith walked out after 20 years with the network.)

Roberts and Klibanoff, whose years of journalistic experience have clearly led them to prefer pragmatism over dogma, don't try to draw bright lines in this ethical murk. But they do know about decency and common sense: impeccably straight news reports do become "editorials in motion" when right and wrong are obvious. Back in 1955, Emmett Till's mother allowed his casket to be open and his disfigured face to be photographed. Her decision "was widely seen in the South, even by otherwise progressive editors, as unconscionable propaganda. [Delta Democrat-Times editor] Hodding Carter, Jr. ... found the 'macabre exhibitionism, the wild statements and the hysterical overtones' of the funeral 'too well-staged not to have been planned to inflame the hatred'." Till's mother denied it was staged, but whether it was or not, the North was outraged. Roberts and Klibanoff find this now-musty controversy "an easy one ... There were an innocent victim and his loving mother against two murderous bullies who seemed to have the backing ... of an entire racist region behind them. In a court of law, yes, they deserved a fair trial; they deserved to be presumed innocent. But as a news story, were there really two sides of it?"

Sure, fine, note the weighted language: "innocent," "loving," "murderous," "racist." Some retired reporter would set you straight about this junk in J-school. Out in the real world, though, where nasty customers are always doing bad things to good people, it sure does clear the air. "The Race Beat" has good characters, good yarns and good thinking. Just as important, though, it's got a good heart.