Sunday, July 22, 2007

Race Reporting - Ledger - OpEd

Published in the Star-Ledger, Sunday, July 15,2007

Race reporting 40 years ago, and its legacy today


On July 13, 1967, as the Newark riots began to unfold, The Star- Ledger's lead story described "carloads of Negroes" surrounding City Hall, and "large roving bands of Negro youths." Three days later, the newspaper's analysis focused on "unrestrained marauding teenagers," restless youths who "came forth with the muscle and manpower to transform a localized inci dent into a rampaging riot."

It was loaded language, convey ing threat and intimidation. There was a palpable mix of fear, anger and bewilderment in the reporting -- a lot of heat and very little light.

The Star-Ledger wasn't the only publication to take that tone. Magazines such as Time and Life -- still-powerful players in a long-ago media environment, before cable news and the Internet -- devoted cover stories to the riots. Reading their coverage of the Newark un rest is revealing of how race was discussed back then.

Time magazine's July 21, 1967, cover carried the banner, "Anatomy of a Race Riot," and featured Newark cab driver John Smith on the cover -- the man whose ru mored death at the hands of the police was one of the factors that ignited the riots. Inside, the text and picture captions treated the mayhem as beyond comprehen sion, and took a dig at the social programs launched by President Lyndon Johnson.

Under a picture of a gutted store, a caption read: "After -- not before -- the Great Society." Another caption, below pictures of Gov. Richard Hughes and Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio, read: "Even the improvements fueled the grievances."

Time's writers concluded that events in Newark unfolded for reasons "not fully foreseeable before hand nor easily explicable afterward."

Interestingly, Life, Time's sister publication, on July 28, 1967, had the exact opposite viewpoint. Its cover headline was "Newark: The Predictable Insurrection." On the cover of Life, a black child laid in his own blood on a street. The child, Joe Bass, 12, of Newark, was caught in the crossfire as a National Guardsman took aim at a looter.

Analysis by writers like Shana Alexander and Hugh Sidey begins to slowly connect the dots: the growing gap between white afflu ence and the black ghetto, the ascendance of a more militant approach to civil rights in the North, and prescient questions about Great Society programs.

"Some $30 billion ... will be poured into the cities and their people in one form or another this year," Sidey wrote. "And yet it may not be enough or it may not be properly directed."

Many readers might attribute the uneven coverage and analysis to the make-up of most newsrooms 40 years ago: They were overwhelmingly white and male. But many white reporters and editors distinguished themselves with their coverage of segregation in the South and the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. Somehow, the press dropped the ball when it came to racial unrest in the North.

"I had this feeling that some (editor) high up had to say, 'Why didn't we see that coming,'" said Hank Klibanoff, the managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We were looking at the South so intently."

Klibanoff is the co-author with Gene Roberts, a former top editor at the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, of "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation." Their book, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history, documents how the press brought the injustice of the segregated South to the forefront of public consciousness. But when Watts exploded in 1965 with six days of rioting, followed by Newark and Detroit a few years later, none of that experience in the South mattered.

In fact, the newspapers of the North had already failed to note a related story, one of the most im portant of the 20th century -- the great post-World War II migration of African-Americans from the small rural towns of the South to the big cities of the North, just at the moment when those cities were starting to lose their industrial muscle and political clout.

The Northern press simply had not done its homework, and had no meaningful and reliable sources to draw on when people took to the streets.

It took the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders -- more popularly known as the Kerner Commission, after its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner -- to lay out the indisputable facts that the media was not equipped to fully grasp at that point. The Kerner Report found the uprisings in Watts, Newark, Detroit and other cities was evidence that "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

"What the rioters appeared to be seeking," the report stated, "was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it."

And the Kerner Report included a scathing critique of the news media, both print and broadcast, for sensationalizing riot coverage, even hyping damage and in jury estimates in some cases. The Kerner panel called on the news media to diversify their ranks, and to commit resources to covering black communities on a regular basis.

Anyone picking up a newspaper today can see evidence that the in dustry heard the panel loud and clear. "The presentation of the diverse culture we live in is much more of a mainstay in newspapers," said Klibanoff. "The prominent role of African-Americans in our lives manifests in the media in a more ordinary way." We're "absolutely" more aware of the importance of inclusiveness, he said. "Not just African-Americans, but the whole melting pot."

Still, even today, newsrooms must guard against complacency. A good question in any newsroom, said Klibanoff, is "Who aren't we covering?"

"And not just a one-hit," Kliba noff added, "but capturing and freeze-framing the world around us, the impact of those people on our culture, being curious about the world around us."

In "Race Beat," Roberts and Klibanoff note that "Watts coverage read as if it were written from a distance, from outside the ghetto looking in."

The same could be said of the coverage that followed the Newark riots. For the media, the greatest legacy of 1967 might very well be how events in Newark and other cities forced the news industry to examine its own practices, and to embrace the intrinsic value of diversity, both for the people who staff the nation's newsrooms and the communities they cover.

Linda Ocasio is a New Jersey freelance writer.

Link to online story.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.