So one of the ironies of our own time isn't just that we commemorate the March and the speech in the shadow of a national counter movement to disenfranchise minority voters. It's also that there is again a level of "false equivalence" in the reporting of voter suppression laws around the country. Fifty years from now, on the centennial anniversary of the March, our successors-in-interest will look back upon our coverage of today's voting rights fight and say: look at how reluctant they were to call these laws what they really were; look at how eager they were to again parrot the lines of the public officials who defended suppressive measures.
My Atlantic colleague James Fallows this week mentioned some of the false equivalence that marked coverage of the March. Let me share another compelling example. In "The Race Beat," the marvelous book about media coverage of the civil rights struggle, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell the story of Howard K. Smith, the television journalist who began his career at CBS News but left for ABC News in 1961 after a run-in with CBS officials over what we now might call "false equivalence" in reporting about racial inequality in Birmingham, Alabama. Smith's work, a CBS Reports documentary titled "Who Speaks for Birmingham?" aired with great controversy. Here from "The Race Beat," is the remarkable back story:
Meanwhile, Howard Smith and his crew shot the final takes of the documentary. Smith stood on a hill overlooking Birmingham and quoted the British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Then he flew to New York for a screening before editors, vice presidents, and company lawyers. When the screening was over and the lights came on, one of CBS's lawyers declared the Burke quote to be "straight editorial" and said it needed to be excised. Angered, Smith for the next hour battled the network executives about every objection they raised, even those that were justified.
Smith smarted from the cuts but thought the documentary was still "respectable" when it aired. Even in diluted form, it set off another earthquake in Birmingham. The affiliated station in the city disaffiliated with CBS. Birmingham editors, who had just chastised their city for the violence against the Freedom Riders, now defended it again, angrily, against Smith and the blacks who had spoken their minds in the documentary. And the city's commissioners responded, as they had to [New York Times correspondent Harrison] Salisbury, with libel suits. The ones against Smith and CBS totaled $1.5 million.
What made the program remarkable was that for the first time in a major national forum, black citizens in the South were given equal time with whites in discussing a city's racial problems. They didn't hold back. They talked about bombings and beatings, their fear of [Birmingham Commission of Public Safety Edwin "Bull] Connor's police, and how humiliating it felt to be segregated. Whites, at best, came across as defensive. The documentary concluded after sixty minutes of prime time, but the argument between Smith and the network continued over whether correspondents could have the same latitude for comment that they once had on radio. It had been building for years and now each side was locked into position.
Smith left New York with the understanding that he would outline his position on the editing, and on news policy in general, in a paper that could be shown to William S. Paley, the chairman of CBS. Smith believed, as Murrow had, that the network was worrying too much about its affiliates' reactions, especially the southern affiliates. Not unlike [Ralph] McGill's feelings about blind fealty to objectivity, Smith thought that if you tried to balance the racial story, the network would give the same weight to Bull Connor's notion of law as it would to the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions.
And that, he wrote in his paper, was "equivalent to saying the truth is to be found somewhere between right and wrong, equidistant between good and evil." When he and Paley finally met, Paley tossed the paper on the table and said he had heard "this junk" before and was not going to permit editorial opinions in television newscasts. Smith said he had nothing to add to what he had written. He got up from the table and walked out of the room and out of a job he'd held with CBS for two decades.
That story tells us a lot about Smith and the sensitivities of television news in the early 1960s. And it reminds us that "objectivity" and "truth" are not necessarily consistent in the stories we read and report. Two years later, when America covered the march on Washington and King's speech, the "he said/she said" narrative Smith complained about was still predominant in coverage of the civil rights story. Faced with bloodied protestors and poll taxes, reporters and editors and producers still sought to hedge their bets over what was right and wrong, good and evil. I asked Klibanoff Tuesday to explain this to me. He responded:
Some of the longstanding "rules" of journalism, while seemingly rational and wise, created distorted versions of the truth. The pursuit of journalistic "objectivity," for example, led many editors to reflexively demand that writers give equal and near-formulaic attention to aspects of a story,"sides," as it were, that were not equivalent. It is what led us toJoe McCarthy, Ross Barnett, George Wallace and the success that demagogues havehad throughout history in uttering outright falsehoods that editors did not feel it was the job of reporters to challenge.
Fortunately, we have gotten away from much of that. Today, if a political figure or corporate leader says something that is patently untrue or undocumented, a reporter is more likely today to challenge the claim and to point out to the audience the flaws, holes and absence of evidence. It is worth knowing that the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics does not mention the words "objective" or "objectivity." It urges journalists to be "fair," but recognizes that "objectivity" is an unwarranted and unwanted handcuff that makes the task of finding truth more difficult.
And then he shared with me another passage from his book that he thought particularly relevant and which, as you'll see below, allows me to segue to the point I want to make about modern coverage of civil rights. From "The Race Beat":
At the same time, a much more important fusion of ideas and sense of direction was taking place when McGill and [New York Times correspondent Claude] Sitton sat and discussed the South and how their profession was covering it. McGill proselytized his fellow journalists with the idea that they had become mindless, robotic followers of the "cult of objectivity," at the expense of truth.
Certainly, reporters had to try to be fair, McGill felt, but he did not see the point of purely objective news presentations if that meant the truth got lost in the process. Objectivity, he believed, was an anachronistic antidote that had emerged in earlier days, when publishers had been wild and reckless in pushing their biases into the newspapers. It had evolved into a formula of printing all sides of the story--sometimes in the same number of words or paragraphs--and leaving readers to make their own choices.
From there, McGill felt, the goal of objectivity had devolved to the point where newspapers had become neutered. If a public figure said something that was untrue or mischaracterized a situation, McGill felt, most newspapers wouldn't report the falsity unless the reporter could get someone else to point it out. And if that someone else stretched the truth, McGill said, newspapers devoted to blind objectivity found themselves in a bind, printing two falsities.
If Citizens' Council leaders in a town, for example,said they were not putting economic pressure on Negroes to withdraw their names from petitions and thenewspaper had incontrovertible proof that they were, why were newspapers so reluctant to report it? Why did they have to wait until they found someone who was willing to say it on the record? Why did they fall back on the conventional thrust and parry of grouping the allegation and denial all in the first couple of paragraphs, which steered readers away from the truth, not toward it?
McGill felt that Sitton and the Times were exceptions. The Times had embarked on a bolder form of news coverage that gave reporters room to go deeper in explaining and interpreting news events and developments. Sitton was a tenacious reporter who did his own legwork, who didn't rely on official sources,who reflexively felt the need to cover the sameground as investigators, and who trusted his own judgment to guide his articles.
Of course the current generation of voter identification laws aren't the same as police dogs ripping into young children on the streets of our cities or the state-sanctioned murder of those helping to register citizens to vote. But acknowledging the differences between now and then in terms of black voter registration, or smugly citing the progress America has made on civil rights in the past 50 years, doesn't help those American citizens who are being discriminated against today by state or local officials. If you are being hassled from voting because you are black or Hispanic does it really matter if it's being done more politely than it was in 1963?
Of course "things have changed in the South," to quote United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in Northwest Austin Municipal District v. Holder, the 2009 decision that paved the way for the Court to strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act this past June in Shelby County v. Holder. But we shouldn't allow the mist of self congratulation to trick us into missing what is before our very own eyes. When it comes to discrimination in voting laws things haven't changed so much in the South, or anywhere else for that matter, that we again ought to be characterizing the truth as "equidistant from right and wrong."