In our Summer 1963 issue, James Boylan, CJR’s founding editor, examined how local newspapers covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign, a non-violent effort to integrate Alabama’s largest city. It was not, to say the least, an attractive record. While the world saw the brutal fruits of segregation through photographs showing young black residents assaulted by attack dogs and fire hoses, Birmingham’s newspapers ran no such photos during a key period in May 1963. They did not usually quote black leaders or citizens. They did not print the name of any African American pictured in a photo on their general news pages, with just one exception—and it wasn’t Martin Luther King.
Out of the anti-segregation demonstrations in Birmingham in April and May has come still another episode in the old North-South dispute over the role of journalism and journalists in domestic crisis. One Southern view was immortalized by T. Eugene Connor, until recently Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Health, Education and Welfare, when he said: “The trouble with this country is communism, socialism, and journalism.”
In the main, though, the dispute has been carried on among those who favor a continuance of journalism, but disagree on its practices. The two Birmingham dailies—the morning Post-Herald, of the Scripps-Howard group, and the evening News, owned by S. I. Newhouse—have had to bear a heavy load of accusations concerning their role in the crisis.
In its May 17 issue, Time wrote:
…how has the News used its influence since segregation tensions began mounting last month? By burying most stories of the situation on its inside pages.
A New York Times editorial on May 14 suggested that whites of Birmingham ask themselves:
Why did our newspapers not fully publicize these [Negro] demands so that we all could know just what they were and decide for ourselves whether they were reasonable or unreasonable? Why were we so quick to blame all the trouble on outside agitators, as some of our public officials did and as our newspapers also did editorially?
In the New York Herald Tribune for May 14, Ralph McGill of The Atlanta Constitution wrote:
Alabama has had a long uninterrupted line of such guidance [as Governor Wallace’s]—from Jeff Davis’s day of oath-taking until now. The newspapers, in the writer’s opinion, largely abdicated their responsibility.”
The indictment can be summarized in three counts:
1. The Birmingham newspapers unjustifiably played down the stories of the demonstrations.
2. The newspapers failed to describe the demonstrators’ goals or the mood of the Negro community.
3. The newspapers failed to undertake responsible leadership in forming public opinion.
A case for the defense was printed in Editor & Publisher for May 18, 1963, in interviews with James E. Mills, editor of the Post-Herald, and C. B. Hanson Jr., president and publisher of the News. Excerpts from the story follow:
Mr. Hanson said that locally the radicals on both sides criticized the news coverage of the Birmingham papers. Both dailies had long ago concluded that nothing could be gained by scareheads and until bombs exploded and riots broke out last weekend, they had carried the story on inside pages…
“Editorially we tried to say that the whites and the Negroes should cooperate to solve the problem, and it was on the way to being resolved until the outside agitators came in and stirred up trouble.” [Mr. Hanson said.]
Mr. Hanson and Mr. Mills said they thought that the Negro organizations involved were using the situation in Birmingham to gain publicity and to build up their treasuries…
… Mr. Mills explained that the story had been played in low key to try to get local people to take a reasonable and calm view and keep down violence.
“There was no police brutality,” the editor declared. “Our law enforcement people restrained themselves when they were cursed, spat upon and hit by rocks. They kept their heads pretty well…
“The newspapers printed all the facts,” Mr. Mills said.
“We recognized,” he said, “that some of those leading the Negroes thrive on publicity and we did not want our columns to be their sounding board. But we are trying to do an honest news job.”
Hanson also pointed out that the two newspapers supported strongly the change in the city government and the election of a moderate mayor. The demonstrations, he said, took place in a “political vacuum,” before the commission government had been finally ordered by the courts to surrender its posts. “People had to try to do quietly what otherwise would have been done publicly. That is why names of those working on possible terms of agreement were not published in our newspapers. But they will be.” They were, on May 15.