Daily Archives: August 27, 2009

When reporters helped change the world

RaceBeat2

So two things combined this week to inspire me to write this post:

1. Like every other newspaper  journalist I know, I’ve been getting sick and tired of everyone telling us how irrelevant we’re becoming.

We’ve got blogs now, and Twitter, and the Internet, and who has time to wait for a newspaper anyway? goes the cry from the masses. Combine that with the hemorrhaging circulation and advertising being in the toilet, it seems everywhere you look, newspapers are gasping for their last breath.

And,

2. Today, August 28, is the 46th anniversary of the greatest speech of the 20th century, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” oration in Washington, D.C.

So given those two things, I wanted to write about an amazing book I read last year called “The Race Beat.” It’s by two legendary journalists, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, and it tells the previously untold story of the courageous journalists, black and white, who helped force the civil rights movement forward into the American consciousness.

By no means does this exhaustive but entertaining book give the journalists all the credit for the movement, but it absolutely does a service to the brave reporters who were on the front lines.

Reporters who had a conscience, yes, about the unconscionable treatment of blacks in the South, but also reporters who knew a good story and knew enough to follow it all the way through.

Typical of them was John Chancellor of NBC, who, the authors write “when faced with a flying wedge of white toughs coming at him” as he talked to a black woman after the Emmett Till lynching trial, pointed his microphone out and yelled “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.”

These reporters were on the front lines right alongside men like Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis, getting their heads bashed in and hosed down with water just like the rest.

Seriously, without reporters like Claude Sitton of the New York Times (who I had never heard of before this book was published, and now I count as a journalistic hero) and Simeon Booker of Jet Magazine, so much of the awful degradation and punishment of African-Americans might’ve stayed under the radar.

And the photographers of the era were equally important; Charles Moore of Life magazine shot some of the most iconic images that were then splashed across America’s coffee tables.

But by constantly confronting the Bull Connors and George Wallaces, and holding a mirror up to their racism, the reporters in the civil rights movement did my whole profession proud.

Of course, not everyone was on board; newspapers like the Birmingham News and others were still trapped in a time warp, refusing to acknowledge the changes going on.

But a small trickle of brave editors like Harry Ashmore at the Little Rock Gazette begat brave editors, and more and more media finally began to cover the civil rights movement, so that brutal attacks on innocent protesters, like the people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama in 1965, would be seen and shoved down the throats of Northerners, forcing them to take notice and demand action just as their Southern brothers were doing.

Truly, this book should be essential reading for journalism students, or any students of American history. If you’re a writer like me, turning its pages will once again make you feel proud to be a part of this profession.

Even if you’re not a journalist, I urge you to check out this beautifully-written tale of courageous people , black and white, who by their words and pictures helped change the world for the better.

And now, just because it can never be heard enough …