Morning Mediawire: Memphis editor says papers have duty ‘to tell their own story’ on race
It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech. It was perhaps the greatest speech ever given in Memphis. “I have been to the mountaintop,” thundered the civil rights leader, just a day before his assassination.
The reporter from the local Commercial Appeal newspaper on April 3, 1968, didn’t write those words. Noted instead on the skimpy, un-bylined story on page 11: the “disappointingly small crowd.”
Two years before the National Geographic opened its archives to a historian and broadcast its findings — of an appalling legacy of racist coverage and characterization — the Memphis paper did its own look back on 175 years of history. This Sunday, the Memphis paper is going deeper on its spotty record of covering civil rights in the 1960s, says Mark Russell, the paper’s executive editor.
Russell encourages other editors across America to show transparency, to dig into their old stories to examine their publications and broadcast stations’ role in the past — and, frankly, to apologize for failings. The National Geographic puts it this way: “To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.”
“We need to tell our story,” says Russell, the former Orlando Sentinel editor and the first African-American to lead the Memphis paper. “The power is that we tell people what we were and what we’ve become. But be unsparing in telling people what you were, don’t sugarcoat it, because that won’t work.”
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Russell cannot fathom why his paper and its departed cousin, the afternoon Press-Scimitar, did not put the speech by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning King on Page One. He can’t speak to why his 1960s editing predecessors consistently refused coverage to Memphis minister James Lawson, the veteran civil rights leader who invited King to help the city’s striking sanitation workers.
Some papers have told part of the story. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Boston Globe more recently, have looked deeply at the racial disparities in their cities and in their institutions, including their publications. On July 4, 2004, the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader apologized on the front page for neglecting to cover the civil-rights movement — and had a series of stories featuring never-published photographs from the city in that era.
After the death of Muhammad Ali in 2016, the Louisville Courier-Journal apologized to readers for waiting six long years in the 1960s to call the city’s most famous person by the name he changed it to instead of his birth name, Cassius Clay. The newspaper also detailed racist snipes at Ali by its cartoonist and writers. “We took what in today’s light is an oddly hostile approach on the specific issue of Ali’s name, which did little to help race relations in a turbulent time,” the paper wrote in 2016. “One of Muhammad Ali’s six core principles is Respect. Sharing this bit of our history gives us an opportunity to pay him the respect he deserves.”
Russell says acknowledgment of past wrongs is key to winning trust and moving forward. Telling that story also can show how far a city and its news outlet have grown and changed since the 1960s, Russell says.
There will be skeptics. Upon the National Geographic’s apology on Monday, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans tweeted: “In another installment of News That Surprises No Person of Color, 130-year-old magazine National Geographic admits that its coverage was racist for many years.”
To tackle an outlet’s mixed past requires will, says Michael Fletcher, senior writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, which examines the intersection of race, culture and sports. Fletcher, in explaining why he thinks publications should clear the air, says that these racist attitudes were pervasive — and not that long ago.
As a young reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Fletcher would go to the newspaper morgue and be appalled by what he saw in the paper’s articles on the Baltimore riots from the late 1960s. “Just the characterization and the tone of the coverage shocked me. Even to my ears in the 1980s it was, ‘how could it be?’ It’s just America’s journey, I guess.”
To journalists and readers, should your community’s publications or broadcast stations examine their past coverage for racial slights and shortcomings? Have they done so already? Let us know.
Here are some of the other stories that may affect your day today:
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