On February 6, 1956, Peter Kihss of The New York Times was covering the enrollment of the first black student, Autherine Lucy, at the University of Alabama. Mobs of racist thugs swarmed the campus, harassing her whenever she left a classroom, and late that day they encircled an older black man who had come to drive Lucy home. Impulsively, Kihss moved to protect the driver, and when the crowd closed in, he abandoned journalistic protocol entirely. "I'm a reporter for The New York Times, and I've gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama," he threatened. "Now I'll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time." The mob spared him, while Lucy scooted out the building's back door into a patrol car.So far so good. But Greenberg tacks his own moral at the end of his piece:
As Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff show in their bracing new history, The Race Beat, the stakes of the civil-rights movement forced many reporters who covered it to choose sides. They found themselves faced with impossible professional, political, and moral dilemmas, with human decency often pitted against journalistic norms. In the process, they challenged professional conventions, aided the cause of equal rights, and, in their own way, made history.
If the civil-rights movement represented one of American journalism's finest hours, it carried a cost. It's a shame that Roberts and Klibanoff don't explicitly state the conclusion that much of their evidence suggests: Today's right-wing bogeyman of "the liberal media" originated in this struggle. Coverage of the movement convinced much of the white South that the networks, papers like the Times, and magazines like Time and Newsweek were hostile and biased interlopers that told only one side of the story.To me it seems an unmitigated good that Kihss stood down the Alabama mob and told them to follow the law. To me broadcasting visceral images of civil-rights protesters getting attacked is just good journalism. To me reporting on It doesn't look like "ambiguous" at all. Greenberg instead believes that these actions traded away some credibility which eventually gave rise to the anti-media resentment that we see today.
Thus, while Roberts and Klibanoff are right to celebrate these journalists for bravely documenting the cruelty of Jim Crow and helping to hasten its demise, their legacy is more ambiguous. For in choosing to support right over wrong, good over evil, they fueled a distrust and resentment of what we now call "the mainstream media" that has, over the years, only grown in virulence.
Greenberg's assumption here is that reporters could have maintained their credibility in the eyes of the South had the reporters simply refrained from things like "deliver[ing] the raw images of brutality and injustice into American living rooms, destroying any last support for Jim Crow outside the South.". But we have very little reason to believe this. After all, when authorities set dogs on protesters, that's news. You can't not report it. If you want to know what it would have taken to satisfy conservative Southerners look no farther that Greenberg's own review:
In one fascinating section, they relate a conspiracy hatched among white Southern editors who belonged to the Associated Press to try to force the wire service to write about crimes by blacks in the North as avidly as it spotlighted the violence of the white South.The problem wasn't that reporters were broadcasting bias. The problem was that they were accurately discerning what was relevant - the civil-rights movement - from what was not newsworthy. Essentially, conservative Southerners didn't want the truth reported because the truth was that the southern system was corrupt and immoral. Objectively. So the "trade-off" Greensburg wants to artlessly tack on to to the end of the book rings hollow.