Modern American journalism has been defined by the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam and Watergate.
Some people still insist that our major newspapers and the original television networks are liberal. It's a notion pretty much passe anymore. But it lingers from the fact that the best newspapers and the major television networks achieved political and cultural influence through their coverage of those stories.
They did it not so much by editorializing as by vigorous and dramatic reporting. The stories were uncommonly compelling and powerful by themselves, revealing racial ugliness, a horrible and losing war and a tragically paranoid and corrupt Republican president.
They dared their chroniclers to rise to the occasion. Some rose; some didn't.
The first of the three stories, civil rights, started in 1957 in Little Rock. That is to say that modern American journalism can trace its genesis to 50 years ago this month in the capital city of Arkansas.
Among the many commemorative activities of the 50th anniversary of the Central High integration crisis was a panel discussion about race and the press last week at the Clinton Presidential Center.
A newspaper legend, Gene Roberts, took part in the panel. He was an Atlanta-based reporter traveling the South covering civil rights for The New York Times in the 1960s. Later he was an acclaimed editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Times. Earlier this year he won a Pulitzer Prize for history for a book he co-wrote called “The Race Beat.”
A key point of the book is that Southern politicians were prepared in the '50s and '60s to resist federal integration laws, and that anarchy may well have been saved only by a few brave Southern newspaper editors risking personal safety and economic viability to stand up for moderation, modernism and the rule of law.
The book cites, among others, Harry Ashmore, executive editor of the late, lamented Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock.
Roberts told the audience: “Never was there a local newspaper that covered a story so thoroughly and so well as the Arkansas Gazette covered the Little Rock story.”
He said it was ironic that Orval Faubus, the court-defiant but altogether cowardly governor who used the National Guard to keep the nine black students out of Central, complained of mistreatment by the Gazette. In fact, Roberts noted, the paper devoted enormous chunks of newsprint to publish his every utterance verbatim — unfiltered, as they like to say these days.
The late Ashmore believed in exhaustive straight news coverage, which he oversaw, and fearless editorials, which he wrote. Most newspapers try to keep those roles separate anymore.
In time the Gazette died, getting absorbed in 1991 by the competing paper in Little Rock, the one that failed to rise to the historic occasion in 1957.
As if that weren't bad enough, we now see the inevitable creep of revisionist history, mainly with a book out this year by Elizabeth Jacoway, a Little Rock historian.
Her work, “Turn Away Thy Son,” offers rich reporting and a gripping narrative covering the events of '57. But it turns decidedly odd, endeavoring to explain Faubus sympathetically and criticize Ashmore. She seems almost to suggest that Ashmore egged on the crisis to make broader political and social points. Never mind that Faubus could have pre-empted these supposed machinations if he had simply obeyed the law.
Jacoway was in the audience Wednesday, and, after her name came up from the panel, she got called on to say a few words. She said her point was that we're all flawed — Ashmore and Faubus ready examples, presumably.
Maybe. But sometimes people get confronted by defining history. Either they get on the wrong or the right side.
Faubus may have had a good side, but he got forever on history's wrong side.
Ashmore, the Gazette and the leading elements of the American media may have had their bad sides, but they got forever on history's right side. Thank goodness.