The race beat lives on in America

downloadI’m reading two books right now, both selections having been inspired by “what happened in Charlottesville” and what continues to happen in this foul decade. The only arms I’m taking up are knowledge and savage wit. To that end: The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

The latter is an excellent novel that, so far, seems to be moving at a brisk pace as Whitehead draws a magical realist lens across the history of American slavery in the early 1800s.

The former is a history of the black press and, later, the white press’ involvement in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. It’s vital reading for our current times. I first read this book in my senior year of journalism school; it’s remarkable how precious the history remains. Journalists and writers of all stripes would do well to read this. (Also, the prose and editing is excellent.)

My read of the press’ involvements in the movement is that media outlets too often ignore the grand narrative of the oppressed and the afflicted, preferring rather to wait and see. To wait for an explosion and see what the powerful choose to do in its wake. That’s always a mistake, and one reason why so many economically disadvantaged voters in the U.S. long ago gave up on the mass media.

From Chapter 12:

At the same time, a much more important fusion of ideas and sense of direction was taking place when [Atlanta Constitution Editor and Publisher Ralph] 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 the newspaper 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.

Also, I’d like to note here that I’ve pledged to publish one post each day this month. The idea comes from my friends Andrew and Teddy, who both wrapped a month of daily posts in August. I’m looking forward to seeing what themes emerge from my writing in September.

The first change I’m implementing for this challenge: art with every story I publish.

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