HOW FAR THEY HAVE FALLEN
I know, that’s a really negative way to introduce a marvelous book about what may have been the high point of professional journalism in the U.S. But there it is.
In The Race Beat, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff reconstruct the role of newspapers and television in bringing the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s to light. A generation of reporters and editors repeatedly risked their careers– and often their lives– to expose the entrenched injustices of the Jim Crow South to the rest of the nation (and to the South itself). The book is brilliant in its pacing and its ability to tell the story in an engaging manner, and the story of the civil rights struggles comes to life through the stories of the reporters and editors the authors cover.
I won’t give you any sneak peeks at the content (save one); you’ll have to read it yourself. I will say that the legacy handed down by the journalists of the Civil Rights Era has long since been tarnished by the corporatization of mass media. Now that the bottom line is the only concern for the string-pullers behind our major print and electronic media, those media fail miserably in their duty as watchdogs of government.
Also, I was struck by how savage, virulent, and commonplace the hatred was among many Southern whites toward the very idea that black people should be treated as equals. It is important to remember that point as one considers both how far we’ve progressed from that era and how fertile the ground has remained for the GOP’s continued reliance on the ever-adapting Southern Strategy.
All that said, I suggest you get the book for yourself. It is available at the Chicago Public Library (where R. borrowed it for me, bless her), and is probably available at your local library as well. If you’re really into history and you have a yen for stories about journalism, then it will be worth it to buy it yourself.
Final note: the book covers very serious ground, but it is not without humor. One passage includes the story of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. One of the more laughable harassments of the segregationists on this occasion involved the Alabama legislature unanimously passing a resolution stating that there had been a great deal of ‘fornication’ in the marchers’ camps (the implication being, of course, that there was sexual contact between black men and white women. The horror!). To this notion SNCC chairman John Lewis replied:
“All these segregationists can think of is fornication, and that is why there are so many different shades of Negroes.”