But it seems like a lot of reporters you describe
. . . Blew their cool at some point.
Blew their cool, but also knew what they thought was right and wrong.
Right. One of the reasons the story had so much emotional impact was that it was, no pun intended, a black-and-white story. There wasn’t a lot of gray in it. You had peaceful demonstrators walking down the street, and you had heavily armed policemen either actively beating up on the demonstrators or standing by while white mobs beat the demonstrators. And there’s not a lot of moral ambiguity about that. It was about as starkly a question of right or wrong as journalism is ever likely to encounter.
But you don’t really have to make a moral judgment on it. You just describe what you see, or take a picture of what you see. And precisely because it was so unambiguous, the public reacts.
Did covering the civil-rights fight give a whole generation of journalists a kind of innate skepticism, as far as authority and authority figures are concerned?
It’s mixed. The question of authority figures cuts both ways. On the one hand, you had these Deep South police officers. But on the other hand, you had these very remarkable federal judges who had just wrestled the segregationist governors to the ground, and overruled them legally time after time after time.
Any other ways your generation’s attitudes were shaped by covering this story?
We learned a lot of things, both newspaper journalists and television journalists. Television, especially, learned to cover a breaking-news story through the civil-rights era. Little Rock broke perfectly in a lot of ways for television. Number one, about the time Little Rock occurred, more households in America had television sets than not, so this could come right in the living room.
We made mistakes and learned by them. And we also learned that, while this was a black-and-white sort of story, we better serve the public when we keep our distance as reporters and really write what we are seeing. I think we also learned what you were saying a while ago: that truth is the important thing, and not necessarily balance. Not one tablespoon of this and another tablespoon of that, but penetrating to the core of the story.
Is that something journalism today has lost sight of?
Some forms of journalism have lost sight of it, and some journalists have lost sight of it, but I think others have not. And we continue the struggle, and always will, I think. As you know, the whole WMD question was one in which, for a period, we worried more about balance than about exactly what the truth was. Although if you go back and look at those newspapers, which I did a few months ago, it may have been too balanced, but certainly newspapers were quoting people making the argument that this was a sham on many, many levels.