The University Record, January 15, 2001

Journalists explore media coverage of race, its effect on policy

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

An audience member reviews The New York Times summer series on ‘How Race Is Lived in America.’ Photos by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
The opening event in the University’s 2001 celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day occurred Jan. 8 in Rackham Amphitheater, when top-flight journalists gathered to talk about their experiences and the effect of media coverage of race on American public and government policies.

“Covering Race Then and Now: The Press and Public Policy” was presented by Dialogues on Diversity and the Michigan Journalism Fellows program with funding by the Kellogg Foundation. The conference featured the editors and reporters of The New York Times series “How Race Is Lived in America,” which appeared last summer, and a group of veteran journalists who have covered race as far back as the post-World War II period.

Golden Behr (left) and Boyd
Gerald Boyd, deputy managing editor of The Times, and Soma Golden Behr, assistant managing editor, opened the program, discussing the series and introducing reporters who contributed to it.

Boyd said that they tried to acknowledge the progress that’s been made in race relations while examining the deep differences that remain. “Our inspiration was the reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict. In the newsroom, the reactions of whites and people of color were starkly different. Why? And why weren’t people talking about their reactions? We wanted to go into the silence,” Boyd explained.

Behr said that the series was about relationships and that they were trying for personal honesty, not just on one side of the story, but on many sides.

Amy Harmon, Times technology correspondent and a former Michigan Daily columnist, wrote about a business partnership. Harmon said she realized as she approached the story that her own first significant experience with a person of color occurred while she was a U-M undergraduate.

Steven Holmes, The Times’ Washington correspondent, wrote an article about two Army drill sergeants, one white and one Black. Holmes said that while the two men worked closely together, they didn’t socialize off the base at all. Atlanta bureau chief Kevin Sack’s article was on the relationships of Blacks and whites in Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. “Surprisingly to me, I found these folks to be extremely integrated, both in the pews and outside the church, for instance, eating at each other’s homes,” Sack said.

Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Clarence Page was asked to put current reporting on race in some perspective. “I’m old enough to remember when we were colored people. Now we’re people of color. Look how far we’ve come,” Page exclaimed. He ended his remarks by quoting Martin Luther King, urging people to remain “divinely dissatisfied.” Page added, “Don’t be satisfied with being non-racist, be ‘anti-racist.’”

Moderated by Charles Eisendrath, director of the Michigan Journalism Fellows Program, the second part of the conference was devoted to “How Race Was Lived in America.”

Author David Halberstam was a reporter for The Tennessean in Nashville when he began covering the civil rights campaign in the 1960s. He said he was excited to see the future of journalism as represented by The Times’ reporters on the panel. “The race story needs to be covered. Sometimes it’s taken for granted today.”

Paul Delaney, with the Times from 1969–72 and now director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University, said he wanted to cover more of the civil rights movement than his editors allowed, so as soon as white newspapers began covering the story, he joined the Dayton Daily World.

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