The University Record, January 15, 2001

Journalists explore media coverage of race (continued)

Delaney (left) and Seigenthaler
John Seigenthaler is a former reporter, editor, publisher and CEO of The Tennessean, founding editorial director of USA Today and now founder and director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. “The color line is still there,” he said, “but it has moved, and that’s good.” Looking at the reporting of race in the 1960s, he said there was a passion in it that he finds absent in most of today’s reporting.

Eugene Roberts focused on Gunnar Myrdal’s book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, in which the author saw the value of the national press in dealing with race. It had always been a local story, but Myrdal believed, Roberts said, “that whites would give Blacks a better deal if they knew the facts.” Outspoken Black newspapers covered the story but were often short-lived. Moderate and liberal Southern editors took a law-and-order stance at first. But many of them took advantage of journalism fellowships that lifted them out of the Southern environment for a year, giving them perspective, leading to more truthful coverage. That in turn influenced the national press to cover the story.

Roberts began his career at the Detroit Free Press, joined The New York Times in 1965 and later spent 18 years as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Moses Newson started his career as a reporter at a Memphis newspaper. In 1957, he joined the Afro-American Newspapers in Baltimore, Md., covering the Emmett Till trial in Mississippi, the desegregation of Central High in Little Rock and the original freedom ride. He and his colleagues often were subjected to intimidation and physical abuse. Newson said that covering race now is safer and less stressful, but the story is no less important.

Roger Wilkins, former assistant attorney general, journalist and now professor of history and American culture at George Mason University, was asked to give his observation on the conference topic and on what he’d heard from the other participants.

He explained that he has two realities, one dating from 1936 when he started segregated grade school in Kansas City, Mo.

“I grew up believing that the U.S. would always be segregated. The power behind it was too great, too broad and too energetically exercised. Even the Constitution said we were second-class citizens,” Wilkins said. The other reality came when race was reported in the Northern press. “They were writing about what we Black people had always known,” he said.

Wilkins commended The Times’ series but said it should not have approached the subject of race through relationships. To Wilkins, the real issue is the creation of a “Black untouchable class, reviled by local TV news, slandered by most of the country, leaving Blacks in the position of losing in whatever endeavor they undertake,” he said. “The country is eroding morally as we go along. Lies are being told about racial spoils, like the benefits of affirmative action, while Blacks still suffer from deprivation and isolation in our society, and about the power relationships that enforce the lies.”

However, Wilkins did note the availability of sophisticated coverage of the truth about the position of people of color in this country, which he wants to see exercised.