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What The Media Got Wrong (And Right) In Its March On Washington Coverage

August 29, 2013

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o-NYT-570It is an old cliché: that journalism is the “first rough draft of history,” the immediate attempt to contextualize events and understand their possible place in our historical memory.

It’s common to look back at a story and wonder why it was given so much play, or to question how reporters could have missed something monumental happening right in front of their faces.

For the most part, the March on Washington was not one of those moments. People knew it was something big.

In “The Race Beat,” their history of the media’s coverage of the civil rights movement, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tally up the relatively vast amount of resources that newspapers and radio stations and television networks devoted to the march.

There were, they write, around 3,100 police or press passes given to journalists on the scene. The big three television networks, together with the Mutual Broadcasting radio service, sent 460 people to capture video and audio. NBC aired eleven special reports throughout the day. CBS ran the whole thing all the way through. It was broadcast live to six countries.

NBC’s Frank McGee called the march part of the “American Revolution of 1963.”

Even so, some newspapers would probably look at their front page from August 29, 1963 and cringe. Beyond the baldly racist southern newspapers, who have essentially had to apologize for the totality of their coverage of the movement, there are the northern papers who might wish they had done some things differently.

The march had to compete with the signing of a bill by President Kennedy to avert a national rail strike, and it often played second fiddle on front pages across the country.

The Chicago Tribune, for instance, would likely have had a different order of headlines in its edition than the one it came up with:

“CALL OFF RAIL STRIKE.””Board OK’s School Bias Study.”

“200,000 Roar Plea for Negro Opportunity in Rights March on Washington; No Incidents”

 

There is no doubt that, historically speaking, the Tribune got the order wrong. The paper’s editorial board also had little to say about the march. It noted briefly that “such oratory as there was, was less superheated than might have been expected.”

Then, there were writers like columnist David Lawrence, who called the march a “day of public disgrace” in a piece syndicated to newspapers around the country.

“For the image of the United States presented to the world is that of a republic which had professed to believe in volunteerism rather than coercion, but which on August 28, 1963, permitted itself to be portrayed as unable to legislate ‘equal rights’ for its citizens except under the intimidating influence of mass demonstrations,” he wrote.

History does not agree with Lawrence either.

The Chicago Defender, stalwart of the black press, was probably a little closer to the mark:

o-CHICAGO-DEFENDER-570

In the past week, NBC News has been running a series of videos on YouTube. They feature everyone from Ann Curry to Chris Christie to One Direction talking about what their “dream” for the world is. (One Direction wants an end to war, hunger and bullying.)

The videos imply that Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech can be claimed by anyone, used for any purpose—cancer research, an end to financial misdeeds, political bipartisanship—and that all of this can be traced back to King’s words.

Yet to look back at how the march and speech were covered is also to remember that the civil rights movement was not always a settled question; it was a living, breathing, divisive, polarizing thing, not something that people of every political stripe could embrace so easily.

White people were especially leery of the march. Most of them thought there would be riots in the streets.

“This is the day of the march for civil rights in the nation’s capital and the dread specter of possible violence hangs over the proceeding,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrotethe day of the march.

President Kennedy didn’t want the event to happen.

“8,000 Will Keep Peace at the March,” an August 14th headline from the Washington Daily News read. The lede went like this: “Anyone who is thinking of coming to Washington to stir up trouble during the Aug. 28 civil rights march would be well advised to forget it.”

Watching NBC’s interview with King and NAACP chair Roy Wilkins from just before the march is instructive. King was hated by many, and he was, lest we forget, an unrepentantly militant activist who had been to jail not long before the march due to that activism.

Here’s the first question, from journalist Lawrence Spivak: “There are a great many people who believe it will be impossible to bring 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incident and possibly riots.”

We see the all-white, all-male group of panelists wonder whether the march is wise; whether there will be violence; whether the movement is moving too quickly.

After the march, a Baltimore Sun piece noted that just three people had been arrested, and “not one was a Negro.” Read more in the Huffington Post.

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