What John Lewis can teach the press

On Friday, John Lewis, the civil rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman, died. He was eighty, and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He addressed the March on Washington, in 1963; had his skull fractured by state troopers on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, in 1965; and served as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee until his ouster by Stokely Carmichael, in 1966. Over the weekend, tributes to Lewis poured forth, including in the press. By the time of his death, Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, Lewis “had been bound so tightly and for so long to the mythos of the movement for democracy in America that it was difficult to separate him from it. For this reason, a friend who texted me ‘John Lewis is gone, what are we going to do now?’ was not only reacting to grief but expressing a real and common sentiment.”

As well as remembering struggles past, much coverage of Lewis linked his legacy to America’s current reckoning with race. The editorial board of the New York Times drew a grim parallel between Bloody Sunday and the much more recent killing of George Floyd, noting that both showed “the extent to which many people need visual evidence to grow outraged over injustice that is perpetrated all the time outside the camera’s eye.” There were references to Lewis’s final public appearance, in Washington, DC, last month, when he went to observe the huge black lives matter mural on the street outside the White House. And there were invocations of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted in 2013, and which congressional Republicans have thus far declined to reinforce. (Over the weekend, many of the same Republicans hailed Lewis as a hero, and were criticized for doing so; Lewis “was too good a man to be praised by Mitch McConnell,” Cobb wrote.) As I’ve written previously, obituaries and other media memorializing must strike a delicate balance between the immediate context of a public figure’s death and the nuances of their personal history. Often, overstating the former distorts or drowns out the latter. In Lewis’s case, the two requirements are inseparable.

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At this moment, perhaps more than any other, death is defining our media landscape—from the pandemic to the protests to, now, the loss of Lewis—and posing tough questions about our coverage and the ways it falls short of adequately serving communities of color. Many journalists have called for moral clarity to be accepted as an organizing principle of our craft, eliciting pushback from some more old-school voices who see a slippery slope from such calls to the abandonment of the pursuit of fact. Lewis’s life was a lesson in moral clarity. If his death teaches members of the press anything, it should be that such clarity does not demand a subjective free-for-all, but rather the understanding that democratic rights—the right of free association; the right to protest without being beaten by the police; the right to vote—are fundamental, and that fighting for them is not playing politics, but what is right.

Lewis reminds us, too, that the fight for these rights is the work of a lifetime, and not merely a function of sporadic tragedies and flare-ups. In many places, the protests that followed the recent killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others have not abated. They have continued to attract coverage from independent and citizen journalists, local outlets, and, sometimes, bigger outlets—but as Fabiola Cineas wrote for Vox last week, they no longer occupy a central place in the national conversation, and when we return to them, it’s often to spotlight unrepresentative instances of violence or conflict. The rhythms of the news cycle—on TV, in particular—are ephemeral, and prioritize novelty; they thus discriminate against the stories of long-term, peaceful movements with simple, consistent demands and coverage of intractable social crises. To be of any use, morally clear coverage must be sustained.

As Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff note in their book The Race Beat, during the civil rights fight of the sixties, Lewis saw journalists as allies—“sympathetic referees” who added a layer of protection against racist brutality by showing up to document it. “If it hadn’t been for the media,” Lewis said, “the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.” But the media as a whole has not been a reliable ally of Lewis’s cause—particularly when it comes to our own structures of representation. In 1968, the Kerner Commission—which President Lyndon B. Johnson convened (then disowned) in response to unrest in major cities—concluded that the media’s overwhelming whiteness led it to miss the root causes of the unrest, and called for greater diversity in newsrooms. We have not fully delivered on that. As Cobb noted in CJR’s fall 2018 magazine on race and journalism, “50 years after Kerner, we still see chronic underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in print and broadcast media.”

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The lessons that Lewis’s life and death offer the press cannot fully be learned until that state of affairs is rectified. Over the weekend, Errin Haines, an editor at The 19th (who also wrote for CJR’s race issue), noted as much on Twitter. “Journalists pushing to make their newsrooms reflect America and for coverage that tells the most honest truth about this country are also causing good trouble,” Haines wrote, borrowing a favored refrain of Lewis’s—good trouble, necessary trouble—that echoed through coverage of his death. “Don’t report on John Lewis’ death without also asking how your institution is or isn’t confronting equality.”

Below, more on the death of John Lewis, and protests:


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Trump sat with Chris Wallace, of Fox News Sunday, for his first Sunday show interview in more than a year. Wallace pushed back on some of Trump’s false claims. At one point, Trump ordered aides to fetch proof that Joe Biden supports defunding the police, but was unable to find any, because Biden doesn’t; later, Wallace displayed the cognitive test that Trump has bragged about acing, which asks, among other things, whether the testee can identify a picture of an elephant. Wallace also asked why Trump has tweeted mean things about him in the past. “I’m not a big fan of Fox,” Trump replied.
  • Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, profiles “covid contrarians” including Alex Berenson, a former Times reporter who rails against public health measures and argues that we should accept the covid death toll. His “tirades against the media don’t explain why he finds himself standing nearly alone against most public health experts and world governments,” Smith writes. “Playing devil’s advocate works on Twitter, though, and on Fox’s powerful shows, and has helped Mr. Berenson sell more than 100,000 copies of his self-published booklet.” Berenson even discussed starting a new outlet with Elon Musk.
  • Last week, Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, sued Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, in a bid to overturn public health measures, including a mask ordinance, that Bottoms has implemented. As part of the suit, Kemp asked for an injunction that would block Bottoms from telling the media that she has the authority to deviate from the public health guidelines that Kemp has laid out.
  • Amid intensifying attacks from Trump and sections of the media, the World Health Organization retained Hill and Knowlton Strategies, a New York–based PR firm, to manage its image. The firm agreed to help the WHO establish “a baseline measure of public awareness” of its work, identify “influencers in key regions,” and work to “ensure there is trust in the WHO’s advice.” Julian Pecquet has more for Foreign Lobby Report.
  • For CJR, Meaghan Winter profiles Nexstar Media Group, which is now the biggest local TV news company in the US following years of aggressive consolidation. “Nexstar doesn’t fit neatly into popular story lines about media barons destroying local journalism,” Winter writes. It “doesn’t broadcast synchronized or partisan content.” And “Nexstar’s corporate management largely comprises veterans of local broadcasting.”
  • An appeals court in New Jersey ruled that a police officer’s widow can proceed with a lawsuit that blames The Trentonian for her husband’s death. In 2016, the paper reported on a police inquiry into claims that the officer, Ed Leopardi, had sex with a prostitute while on duty. Leopardi subsequently killed himself. His widow’s suit, which alleges defamation and wrongful death, had previously been dismissed. NJ.com has more.
  • In the UK, Andrew Marr, who hosts a Sunday morning show on the BBC, confronted Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, with drone footage appearing to show handcuffed Muslim prisoners in Xinjiang being shepherded onto trains. “I don’t know where you got this videotape,” Liu said. “Sometimes, you have a transfer of prisoners in any country.” (Western intelligence agencies and Australian experts verified the footage.)
  • And The ReidOut, Joy Reid’s new show on MSNBC, debuts tonight at 7pm Eastern. It will fill the time slot vacated by Chris Matthews, who quit the network under a cloud in March. ICYMI, I assessed Reid’s promotion in a recent edition of this newsletter.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.