This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
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.
The two spokesmen were highly critical of coverage of the demonstrations by television and Time and Life magazines, and in northern and foreign newspapers.
Thus stand the published indictments and the defense. An examination of the files of the two papers for the first half of May—that is, the period that includes the peak of the demonstrations, the negotiation and announcement of agreement between Negro and white groups, and the bombing and riots of May 11—reveals that the generalizations of both the prosecution and defense are subject to qualification.
First, the policy of both papers of carrying news of the demonstrations on inside pages: Whatever the original motives behind this decision, it involved the papers in curious contradictions. For one thing, the papers almost invariably selected page two for the leading stories on the demonstrations. This might have created, for a time, the desired de-emphasis. But full coverage, the other stated aim, meant that page two increasingly tended to get out of hand, until—in the case of the News—it became by May 7 a news-display page of considerably more impact than page one. (See illustration.) Readers must soon have realized that they could find the stories in the same place every day. The net effect, as judged from afar, was that the demonstrations in the end were given a special kind of emphasis, instead of being placed in competition with the rest of the day’s news. (The page-two convention broke down after the May 11 bombings.)
If front-page display is ignored, there can be no quarrel with the quantity of material describing the demonstrations. In the five days. May 6 through 10, the Post-Herald carried an average of four columns of text a day, about half of it on page two. It carried only one photograph. In the same week, the News—a far larger paper—carried about seven columns a day, including about five columns on page two.
The content of the copy reflects the editors’ desire to give the demonstrators no forum. Until one of the leaders, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, held a press conference on May 10, the stories apparently never included a direct quotation from any Negro identified by name. Almost all contacts with the demonstrators appeared to have been by way of third parties. Such indirect statements as appear concern largely the plans for further demonstrations, and offer little enlightenment on the objects of demonstrations.
The use of photographs appears to have been highly selective, too. Neither paper used any of the famous shots of the use of police dogs or hoses that were used around the world. In the later stages, the News printed many photographs, but they do not show Negroes knocked down by hoses or with clothing ripped by dogs. (By contrast, a paper examined for comparison, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, found several such worth using.) The question here is whether the widely distributed photographs or the local ones gave the truest picture. Possibly the answer is that both types could have been printed.
To find what the papers’ basic attitudes were, it is necessary to turn to the frequent editorials. Here it must be borne in mind that both newspapers knew about the secret negotiations between the white Senior Citizens and Negro leaders, which had been resumed on April 25.