What Today's Journalists Can Learn From MLK Coverage

In 1963, newspapers tried to present "both sides" of the civil rights struggle. Modern reporters should know better — but when it comes to voting rights, they often make the same mistake.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

The golden anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech have appropriately fostered among a great many people unalloyed feelings of pride and nostalgia. Here was a moment of peaceful assembly, a mass redress of elemental grievances of the people, by the people, and for the people, that was capped off by one of the most memorable speeches in American history -- one that has eerie relevance 50 years later. That day the meek raised their voices, sounding in the name of justice, and the rest of the nation listened. Soon there was a Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act.

But as we look back closely on the events of late August 1963, we are reminded, too, of how those events were (or were not) covered by the journalists of that day. It's easy to look back and glorify the events of August 28, 1963 -- to see in speaker John Lewis, for example, a portrait of the hero he would become, 559 days later, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But that's not necessarily how the March and the Speech were covered in real time. There was in 1963 a level of "false equivalence" in reporting on civil rights that, in the name of "objectivity," equated black demands for racial equality with white concerns about getting there.

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.

The Past

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.

The Present

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."

As if to hammer home the point, CBS News recently commissioned a poll on race relations in the United States. The results, released this morning, are telling. "Fifty years after the March on Washington," the pollsters say, "there is a wide divergence between the views of white and black Americans on the issue of racial discrimination. While sizeable majorities of both whites and blacks think there is at least some racial discrimination today, blacks are more apt to say it is widespread. Forty percent of blacks say there is a lot of discrimination against African-Americans today, compared to just 15 percent of whites who say that."

I've already written here at The Atlantic about how the New York Times-- the paper of Harrison Salisbury and Claude Sitton-- has succumbed again to false equivalence in its coverage of the nation's suppressive voter identification laws. Others have as well. Still others have focused upon the paper's position on "voter fraud." Indeed, when Times' editor Sam Sifton last year declared of the controversy over "voter fraud" that "it's not our job to litigate it in the paper. We need to state what each side says" he was in direct conflict with his own paper's grand tradition of not merely just stating "what the other side said" when it comes to voting rights.

I don't mean to pick only on the Times. Last month, The Wall Street Journal committed the same sin. "The fight over voting rights is intensely partisan," wrote Devlin Barrett. "Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to dilute and discourage voting by minority groups, who tend to favor Democrats. Republicans say they are trying to prevent voter fraud, particularly through the passage of more stringent voter-identification requirements." This may be journalism but it's hardly reporting-- it doesn't even hint at the truth of the matter, which is that the voter fraud argument has long been exposed as a myth. There is simply no equivalence.

The "truth" is that the fight over voting rights today is every bit as clear as was the fight over voting rights 50 years ago. The means of suppression are far more sophisticated, and far less easy a story to tell on television, and that means that reporting on the restrictive new laws must be both more nuanced and assertive. And the Supreme Court has given today's new suppression efforts a constitutional patina that must be better explained; as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, as it always is, just because the justices say something is constitutional doesn't make it right, or moral, or even necessarily defensible as a matter of fact or law.

The truth is that one party is trying to make it harder (or impossible) for American citizens to vote. And the other party is trying to stop the first party from making it harder (or impossible) for American citizens to vote. As we commemorate a moment of singularly clarity in our nation's history, when the American people moved decisively to right a wrong that had lasted for more than 100 years, we should be clear that racial discrimination in voting practices still exists today, in clever forms, implemented by officials who barely conceal their motives, and that we owe it both to our grandparents and to our grandchildren to expose it all for what it is. How long must we remain vigilant? Not long. Because no lie can live forever.