Accountability, 50 years after Kerner

While the world has change in a lot of ways since the turn of the 21st century, the two big changes of this spring crystalized things with particular force. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed social inequity and the video of George Floyd’s killing from a police stranglehold has inspired protests that accelerate the Black Lives Matter movement across the world.

Pilgrimage for Racial Justice, Staunton, Va., outside Allen Chapel AME Church, Aug. 17, 2019.

When the ideas of the Enlightenment – of equal rights and popular sovereignty – crystalized into revolutionary action, Wordsworth famously noted “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, to be young was very heaven.” This seems such a moment in history. The dogma of white supremacy is flickering into public consciousness around the digital images of anti-Black police brutality. Every institution and every individual within those institutions must find their own larger accountability in the glow of this consciousness, depending on the ethics and public good of each. My accountability is as a journalism teacher and practitioner (at least formerly) and scholar of news media.

The most powerful news organizations have been blind, at best, to their own white perspectives and race stereotypes. At the same time, the dissenting forms of the minority press have been dismissed or ignored, contrary to the mainstream press’s espoused commitment to the First Amendment. One example of this blindness: A news service dedicated to covering the impact of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation ruling of 1954 carefully framed its coverage as “balanced” (its all-male board included both pro-integration and pro-segregation editors, including two Black men) and dismissed criticism of having no black reporters on the grounds that it considered an “objective” reporter’s race irrelevant.

The news profession began to recognize the problems with this view in the 1960s, with the recognition of black agency in the Civil Rights Movement. The perspectives of non-mainstream identities and experiences began to be valued, at least in principle. But changes in hiring and promotion were glacial. Then came the long-hot summers of the mid-sixties, and the 1968 report of The National Commission of Civil Disturbances. Chapter 15 is on “The News Media and the Disturbances.”

While the commission found that the number one problem was police behavior in black communities, it excoriated the news media for its homogenous take on what makes news. “The press has too long basked in the white world,” the commission wrote. If it looked outside the white world at all, it was with white men’s eyes and perspective. “That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”

The commission found coverage of the destruction in places like Detroit and Newark to be solid enough – thorough, but not sensationalizing. What was lacking, according to the commission, was an analysis of root causes. News coverage, by instinct, favors events and conflict over “conditions.” Carolyn Martindale’s 1986 study, The White Press and Black America, notes that the “plight” of black America didn’t qualify as news until the systemic oppression was dye-traced by Movement events – usually a strategic nonviolent provocation of police violence. Police violence (e.g. Birmingham) “surfaced” the unseen oppression of the ages.

The Kerner report’s cry for change in the American media to “begin now” occurred more than 50 years ago. It may sound hackneyed to say, once again, “The time is now.” But it is so. Recent long-form journalism and books have made the argument for reparations and spotlighted the history of white supremacy, such as David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy andDouglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Today, the dramatic explosion of Black Lives Matter inspires this journalism professor to say it again – it’s time. I am looking to be held accountable.

About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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