By Tony Palmeri
July 2nd marks the 50th anniversary of president Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA). The individual most responsible for getting the act through the US Senate was Everett Dirksen, a conservative Republican from Illinois. When asked why he took up the cause of civil rights, the eloquent, deep voiced Dirksen quoted Victor Hugo: “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.” (Another Republican, 6th district representative William Van Pelt of Fond du Lac, was the only member of the Wisconsin congressional delegation to vote No; Van Pelt lost his seat to Democrat John Race in November of 1964. In today’s GOP Van Pelts abound, but it’s hard to find any Dirksens.).
An army could not withstand the strength of the idea of civil rights, but soon after the passage of the CRA armies were called in to quell urban uprisings. In Los Angeles, Detroit, and other places, the promise of the CRA could not overcome shameful socioeconomic conditions created over many generations of deeply ingrained racism in public policies touching employment, housing, and education.
The wave of post CRA violence forced LBJ to convene a commission to study its causes. In 1968 the Kerner Commission released a 426 page report highlighting anger and frustration at the lack of economic opportunity as the key factor sparking revolts. Some of the report’s harshest criticisms were leveled at the mainstream news media, which was faulted for sensationalized, inaccurate coverage of urban disturbances. Commissioners employed powerful language to show how the mainstream media were part of the problem, not part of the solution to racial strife:
“By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls ‘the white press’—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”
The Eisenhower Foundation produced a “40 year update” of Kerner in 2008, and found that not much had changed as regards media: “Since the Kerner Commission, media ownership has been reduced to just a few giant, White-controlled corporations, facilitated by the federal deregulation that has failed average citizens so spectacularly . . . Minorities are greatly underrepresented in the media. Minority ownership is miniscule. Top heavy with White middle-class men, many television news departments and many major newspapers today are focused less on quality reporting and more on declining viewership, readership and profits. The priorities of the Kerner Commission are not sufficiently covered, and then only for a short while .
Another 40 year update of Kerner, produced by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communication and Center for Africana Studies along with North Carolina A & T State University’s Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies, included an essay by sociologist Darnell Hunt called “The Media and Race, 40 Years After Kerner.” Hunt argued that “Forty years after Kerner we continue to confront a reality in which news stories are routinely told from the standpoint of a white man’s world.’ Just as this standpoint provided minimal insights in the mid-1960s about the relationship between America race relations and the violence erupting on inner-city streets, it has had little to offer in recent years about the connections between race in America and, say, what happened in Los Angeles in 1992, or in New Orleans in 2005. This is because the dominant standpoint is wedded to the surveillance function of American news media, which is rooted in a fundamental interest in maintaining order above all else. It is a gaze invested in focusing on symptoms and overlooking causes.”
As regards coverage of the civil rights movement, “white man’s world” journalism features three characteristics that make accurate reporting difficult and editorializing almost unbearable. First, there is a “leader obsession.” The civil rights movement gets framed not as the story of millions of people working for justice at the grassroots level, but as the work of heroic individuals who almost magically move the masses to the side of the good. (The leader obsession similarly makes it difficult for mainstream media to cover Occupy Wall St., a movement that explicitly disavows traditional leadership models.).
Second, white man’s world journalism treats the civil rights movement nostalgically; as something that happened decades ago. Thus we get nonstop celebrations of the past while the modern movement is treated as either nonexistent or as the concern only of fringe extremists.
Finally, white man’s world journalism minimizes or ignores scholarship and independent reporting about race in modern America. Two examples are Professor Michelle Alexander’s brilliant The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in the May issue of The Atlantic. Both works provide insightful, cutting edge analysis of the realities of the racism in modern America. For each to become part of mainstream discourse, we shall have to overcome the mainstream news media. ν
Tony Palmeri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh.