A felonious former Illinois governor’s surprising contribution to journalism

President Lyndon Johnson meets with the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders at its first meeting in July 1967. Commission chairman Otto Kerner sits to Johnson’s right. (Photo courtesy of the LBJ Library)

In May 1976, just four months before Otto Kerner’s death from cancer, Chicago news media members organized a testimonial dinner for the former Illinois governor. It was an odd event to some, who called it comparable to “Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein giving a dinner for Richard Nixon.” After all, the 67-year-old Kerner was able to attend only because he was let out of federal prison early due to health concerns after his conviction in a race-track stock scandal three years earlier. But Steve Schickel of WGN-TV, one of the testimonial dinner organizers, said he wanted to do it as a gesture to a “nice guy who must have gone through hell.”

Schickel said he and WLS newsman Hugh Hill got the idea when they were covering the state legislature in Springfield, Illinois. “A bunch of us guys got to talking about what a nice guy Kerner was and how cooperative he had been,” Schickel told Chicago Tribune columnist Dorothy Collin. “We like the guy personally, no matter what he’s done. And we thought it would be a shame if someone didn’t do something for him.” Schickel was not alone in wanting to honor Kerner, who was well respected throughout his career by television, radio, and newspaper reporters—and would later come to be appreciated for his unlikely contribution to journalism.

The irony of such a testimonial dinner sponsored by the news media can be explained by knowing a little history and by reading Chapter 15 of the 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Report (named for its chairman). Most of the Kerner Report was sent straight into the circular file by President Lyndon Johnson, who had named Kerner as chair of the commission. But the chapter called “The News Media and Disorders” was not sent into the shredder. It was widely read and acted upon by the nation’s news media.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the naming of the Kerner Commission, and with the news media in turmoil as it was back in 1967, the contents of the Kerner Report’s Chapter 15 are as relevant as ever. The irony of that report is that it came from Kerner, a politician who had never been a member of the news media. That is a lesson that journalists could learn still today—that someone from the outside might just have answers the profession needs.

 

Black is at long last news in the white press. The change is remarkable.”

 

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The Kerner Report was a wake-up call to the news media in the late 1960s. In short, the report laid out some clearly articulated criticisms, backed up by the proper dose of praise and deference to the First Amendment. News organizations reacted in a big way in 1968 and 1969 by increasing their reporting about race and poverty. They went in-depth on the causes of racism, poverty, and segregation of black Americans, which the report determined was the root cause of the rioting. TV station managers and newspaper editors finally recognized that they had failed to tell the white public about the problems in black society. Jack Highton, a researcher at Wayne State University, noted this change in the mainstream news media after the report’s release, saying in 1970 that “Black is at long last news in the white press. The change is remarkable.”

The news media chapter was included in the Kerner report because when Johnson named the commission in late July 1967, the president gave the commission some specific questions to answer. Along with the basics of how, why, and what can be done to prevent rioting, the commission received 14 specific points of focus. And the last of these 14 points was “What effect do the mass media have on the riots?”

That was an interesting question that, frankly, was on the minds of many people who believed by the summer of 1967 that the news media were causing the riots–or at the very least making them worse. Certainly, President Johnson, a man obsessed with media reporting of news, believed it was something worth exploring even if it did come close to threatening the right of free press. After all, even the thought of a government commission investigating the news media inspired fears of violations of the First Amendment and a media backlash.

But times had changed. The news media were under fire during the summer of 1967. It made sense on some level. It seemed that as soon as the news media reported about rioting in one city, it would spread to another. A common refrain was that if the news media, TV mostly, would just stop reporting on the rioting, people would stop doing it. There were some concrete examples to back up that theory. When TV reporters went live to the scene of a riot, more people would show up. Rioters would play to the TV cameras. News media members were their own worst enemies as well with instances of TV reporters encouraging rioters to throw bricks, break windows, and act menacingly just for the sake of good TV footage. In Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness, a book about the 1965 Watts riot, it was reported that Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker openly blamed the news media for making the situation worse with its live coverage.  The blame also filtered into Congress, where Representative Durward Hall of Missouri went onto the floor of House in late July 1967 and publicly accused TV of inciting riots “in a fashion no less detestable than the worst days of yellow journalism.”

In researching the news media, the commission did a lot of things right. First off, the Kerner Report offered a dose of praise, complimenting the news media for its efforts to report on rioting, recognizing it as a very difficult and chaotic assignment. It also absolved the news media of direct blame for causing the spread of rioting, which members of the news media greatly appreciated. But it also took the news media to task for essentially failing to report and understand that the root causes of the rioting were not lawlessness but rather racism, poverty, oppression, segregation, and lack of opportunity in black neighborhoods.

 

The commission reported “that despite instances of sensationalism, inaccuracies, and distortions, newspapers, radio, and television, on the whole, made a real effort to give a balanced, factual account of the 1967 disorders.” But it also noted that “[the media’s] portrayal of the violence that occurred last summer failed to reflect accurately its scale and character. The overall effect was, we believe, an exaggeration of both mood and event.” In short, the report argued “that the media have thus far failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and underlying problems of race relations.”

So the news media were to blame for the rioting, sort of, but not in the way that the politicians and most in the public thought. The blame struck at the heart of what journalism is supposed to be all about—informing the public about the causes of problems, not just the after effects. The media did a great job covering the effects of the rioting, but they did a lousy job covering the causes. The Kerner Report conclusions came with plenty of research, which gave the conclusions weight.

One of the main pieces of research the commission conducted was a little-known event in November 1967 that brought together about 60 of the top executives of television, newspaper, and academia together at a corporate retreat center in Poughkeepsie, New York. What made it so interesting was that the commission was able to bring together the most influential people in the mainstream news media under the agreement the conference would be off the record. The commission staff made a wise move in deciding that if it called the news media executives into a Washington, DC, hearing that was widely broadcast, the first thing that would happen is the media members would scream it was a violation of press freedom. So why not invite the news media to a weekend in rural New York, feed them, offer them some golf and then discuss the problems—before accusing them of them of not doing their jobs?

This is where Kerner shined. He had a captive audience. He had the top people in the business eating on the commission’s dime. So on the Sunday morning of the conference he accused the media of ignoring what was happening in the nation’s riot-torn cities. He wanted them to recognize that they were partly to blame for the urban violence, and he blasted them for their obstinance.  “I’ve come here, and I’ve heard that all’s right with the world,” he said. “The media have nothing to do with suggesting these things, and I believe this at your level, but I wonder whether you really know what’s going on at the grassroots level,” said Kerner, according to transcripts of the conference. “I know it’s the Lord’s Day, but all hell broke loose in Detroit on the Lord’s Day not too long ago.” Kerner warned his listeners that they needed to help remove this “terrible cancer that we have growing” on American society, and wanted them to admit they needed to change their ways. Kerner’s speech was a climactic moment in the conference, and news media members started to take notice.

The commission did not stop there, either. Relatively new at that time was social science research into the news media at a time when people first recognized the immense power that the media, TV mostly, had on people’s behavior. The commission hired a firm to sift through much of the TV and newspaper coverage of the rioting in the summer of 1967, and interview people in riot torn cities about their impressions of the news media. That social-science research, although disputed as somewhat flawed by some Kerner commission staff members, determined there was no direct cause between the amount of TV coverage of a riot and the violence or intensity of a riot. It gave the commission some scientific legitimacy to reach the conclusion that the news media did not directly cause rioting. It then allowed the commission to come to its grander conclusion that the news media failed its job to report about the root causes of the rioting.

After the report, the mainstream news media competed to see who could do a better job reporting everyday news on the black community and going into depth on poverty, racism, and segregation. The Memphis Commercial Appeal dropped its Hambone’s Meditations comic that featured a stereotyped black character, and hired a black columnist. The Boston Globe produced a supplement on poverty in the black community. Newsday ran a series about the hidden poor, many of whom were black. The Chicago Tribune published a special supplement, “The Negro in America;” and other newspapers followed suit, offering monthly supplements that focused successes stories of the black community.

Television news organizations also began releasing hard-hitting reportage about race and black America. In the summer of 1968, CBS launched a seven-part series, Of Black America, which it aired commercial-free. WNAC-TV in Boston launched Journey Out of Africa, a 13-week series tracing the history of blacks in the US. WCBS-TV in New York produced 108 half-hour educational episodes in a series about black Americans.

 

The commission concluded that one reason the news media were so clueless as to the cause of the rioting was that they had few staff members who were black or who had any connections in the black community.

 

In the almost half century since its release, much of the historical assessment of the Kerner Report’s impact on the news media has focused on its recommendation that mainstream news media needed to do a better job hiring black reporters and staff. The commission concluded that one reason the news media were so clueless as to the cause of the rioting was that they had few staff members who were black or who had any connections in the black community. While there was an uptick in the hiring of black journalists in mainstream TV and newspapers after the report, it was minimal. By the late 1970s, many concluded that the lack of people of color in mainstream newsrooms was still a problem. But that assessment misses the real impact of the report on the news media. The Kerner Report persuaded the news media that the black community was a newsworthy subject, and it was worth the time and energy to report on the root causes of racism, poverty, and oppression. As one editor said in Newsweek magazine in 1968 after the report was released, “Reporters and editors are discovering this other country.”

While that change may have lasted only a few years, it did initiate an ongoing debate about inclusiveness and the need to ensure all people are included in the mainstream of news coverage. It is ironic that the most-lasting positive effect of the Kerner Commission was its effect on improved news reporting, not its myriad of recommendations about housing, jobs, and urban planning, almost all of which were never implemented.

As for Kerner, a reassessment of his role in media history is certainly in order. Just at the end of his life, there were those in the news media who recognized Kerner’s significance to journalism. On the day after his death, the Chicago Tribune in an editorial argued that a posthumous criminal pardon for Kerner would be appropriate. “In the obvious sense, it will make no difference; no government can either punish or excuse him now. But a pardon might make a difference to this nation’s own concept of justice. . . . Otto Kerner did many good things. They should not be forgotten.”

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Tom Hrach is the author of The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission Changed Media Coverage of Black America.