Heroes, Weren't They?

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
(Knopf, 518 pages, $30.00)

On February 6, 1956, Peter Kihss of The New York Times was covering the enrollment of the first black student, Autherine Lucy, at the University of Alabama. Mobs of racist thugs swarmed the campus, harassing her whenever she left a classroom, and late that day they encircled an older black man who had come to drive Lucy home. Impulsively, Kihss moved to protect the driver, and when the crowd closed in, he abandoned journalistic protocol entirely. "I'm a reporter for The New York Times, and I've gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama," he threatened. "Now I'll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time." The mob spared him, while Lucy scooted out the building's back door into a patrol car.

As Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff show in their bracing new history, The Race Beat, the stakes of the civil-rights movement forced many reporters who covered it to choose sides. They found themselves faced with impossible professional, political, and moral dilemmas, with human decency often pitted against journalistic norms. In the process, they challenged professional conventions, aided the cause of equal rights, and, in their own way, made history.

Roberts, who appears as a character in this book's final chapters, is a longtime New York Times reporter and editor; Klibanoff is an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In lesser hands, the doings of a bunch of scribblers and cameramen would amount to a monograph, a sliver of the big picture. But Roberts and Klibanoff, who have exhaustively researched the subject, use the prism of the reporters' experiences to enhance understanding of the main storyline. That they succeed in demonstrating the media's important role in these events is no mean feat. Despite our tendency to endow journalists with the hypnotic power to fool a people into going to war or decide an election, the media's effect on public opinion is usually far less direct or potent. In this case, however, it was real. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil-rights leaders knew that uprooting entrenched racism required stirring the conscience of the nation and that only the mass media could do so.

Befitting its influence, The New York Times commands large swaths of the narrative, but Roberts and Klibanoff deal with the whole press. They show us the crusading black newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American, which spotlighted Southern injustices when no one else would; the big-time television networks that beamed the drama around the country (as well as the two-bit local stations that tried to thwart them); glossies like Jet and Life whose photojournalism wordlessly shocked the middle class; even, in passing, intellectual journals like The Reporter, whose talented young correspondents -- David Halberstam was one -- exercised an influence beyond their publications' small readerships.

The rich narrative eludes easy summary, but it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. At the outset, the white press largely ignored Jim Crow and the movement. Typical was John Popham of The New York Times, a genteel Virginian who preferred seeking out optimistic "voices of sanity" across the South to reporting on the grievances of oppressed blacks or the stubborn racism of much of the white population.

Soon, however, a younger generation of reporters eclipsed the Pophams. From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s -- starting with the murder of Emmett Till and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and continuing through the sit-ins and Freedom Rides -- the press stepped up its coverage. Yet political life was becoming polarized, making a stance of neutrality hard to maintain. Some journalists, such as James Kilpatrick of the Richmond News Leader (later to gain fame as the house curmudgeon on 60 Minutes' "Point-Counterpoint"), tried to provide an intellectual armature for Southerners flouting federal edicts. Others, despite striving to report evenhandedly, couldn't help being moved to write sympathetically of the black activists who were risking their lives. Some journalists paid a price. CBS in effect fired Howard K. Smith for refusing to bend to William Paley's will and agree, as Smith put it, "that truth is to be found somewhere between right and wrong, equidistant between good and evil."

In the final phase of the story, as the movement came to a climax, television came to the fore. The new medium delivered the raw images of brutality and injustice into American living rooms, destroying any last support for Jim Crow outside the South. TV's influence culminated in its depiction of the events at Selma, Alabama, in March 1965, when ABC interrupted its Sunday Night Movie -- Judgment at Nuremberg -- to show Sheriff Jim Clark commanding his troopers, "Get those goddamned niggers," before his men clubbed and gassed a column of protesters gathered to demand their right to vote. Five months later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, declaring, "We shall overcome."

If the civil-rights movement represented one of American journalism's finest hours, it carried a cost. It's a shame that Roberts and Klibanoff don't explicitly state the conclusion that much of their evidence suggests: Today's right-wing bogeyman of "the liberal media" originated in this struggle. Coverage of the movement convinced much of the white South that the networks, papers like the Times, and magazines like Time and Newsweek were hostile and biased interlopers that told only one side of the story.

The ensuing resentment found various modes of expression. Few correspondents left the South without a broken bone, a bad bruise, or at least a terrible scare as a souvenir. Some were less successful than Peter Kihss in keeping mobs at bay; Paul Guihard of the Agence France-Presse was murdered at point-bank range by segregationists trying to stop James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi in 1962. But Roberts and Klibanoff also detail more subtle ways in which hostility toward the national media was voiced. In one fascinating section, they relate a conspiracy hatched among white Southern editors who belonged to the Associated Press to try to force the wire service to write about crimes by blacks in the North as avidly as it spotlighted the violence of the white South.

Ultimately, politicians -- notably Alabama Governor George Wallace -- capitalized on this resentment. Wallace cited journalists alongside pointy-headed intellectuals and the Supreme Court in his litany of elitist villains who were screwing the little guy. Richard Nixon, too, picked up the strategy, which he bequeathed to men like Roger Ailes and Karl Rove. Thus, while Roberts and Klibanoff are right to celebrate these journalists for bravely documenting the cruelty of Jim Crow and helping to hasten its demise, their legacy is more ambiguous. For in choosing to support right over wrong, good over evil, they fueled a distrust and resentment of what we now call "the mainstream media" that has, over the years, only grown in virulence.

David Greenberg is a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. His books include Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image and Calvin Coolidge (December 2006).

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