To begin with, McGill was writing a column every day on the front page of the newspaper, and I’m not aware of a front-page column any place on a major newspaper today. And God knows, he was harassed by his publisher, Jack Tarver. Tarver was a friend of McGill’s and wrote him notes and memos constantly saying, “My God, you wrote about race again today!” McGill successfully took Tarver on, but the newsroom wasn’t able to. Basically, the publisher ruled that the paper could cover civil rights in Atlanta, but couldn’t go out of town to cover it. So you had the spectacle of Selma taking place probably an hour and a half away by car, and the Atlanta Constitution — or the Journal, for that matter — not covering it.
I think you’d have some of the same thing today — maybe due to fear of controversy, which was, I think, the motivation in that case, but more likely because of the expenses. There are still some papers that will cover the story whatever it takes, but scores and scores of newsrooms are feeling budget pinches.
You could also make a case that the civil-rights fight was unique — that no other issue comes close to occupying the central place that race does in our society, and that no other story will ever exercise the kind of moral claim on journalists that the civil-rights battle did.
It was certainly the story of my lifetime. While I covered the war in Vietnam, and spent months covering the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, and covered labor, nothing had quite the emotional or societal impact that the race story did. And you’re quite right that few stories carry that kind of emotional wallop.
On the other hand, there are stories all over the place that are important to society that aren’t being covered fully. I can’t make a sweeping claim on every single newspaper, but while we read about the health-care crisis, we don’t get the vivid mental pictures that are out there about crowded emergency rooms — all sort of vivid things which might cause society to act. And of course, images were very important in conveying the civil-rights story.
Nobody knew that better than Martin Luther King. Flip Schulke was in Selma shooting for Life magazine, and a posse started jostling a young black kid. Schulke was so shaken by this that he put his camera down and went to the rescue of the kid. King heard about it, and told him that they had sufficient civil-rights workers — that because he didn’t take the picture, the world didn’t see this.
That brings up a theme that runs throughout the book — the value, or lack thereof, of an “objective” stance by reporters. At one point, you cite ralph mcgill’s argument that objectivity and truth are actually competing values.
While he may have used the word objectivity, I think what he meant was balance — that if you worried too much about giving both sides equal space, you might miss the story. Howard K. Smith [of CBS] put it another way: the networks were insistent on giving equal time for segregationists and integrationists, and Smith argued that that means objectivity is somewhere halfway between good and evil. And that viewpoint cost him his job.