Birmingham: newspapers in a crisis

‘The papers appear to be almost as segregated as the city itself’

In our Summer 1963 issue, James Boylan, CJR’s founding editor, examined how local newspapers covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign, a non-violent effort to integrate Alabama’s largest city. It was not, to say the least, an attractive record. While the world saw the brutal fruits of segregation through photographs showing young black residents assaulted by attack dogs and fire hoses, Birmingham’s newspapers ran no such photos during a key period in May 1963. They did not usually quote black leaders or citizens. They did not print the name of any African American pictured in a photo on their general news pages, with just one exception—and it wasn’t Martin Luther King.

Out of the anti-segregation demonstrations in Birmingham in April and May has come still another episode in the old North-South dispute over the role of journalism and journalists in domestic crisis. One Southern view was immortalized by T. Eugene Connor, until recently Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Health, Education and Welfare, when he said: “The trouble with this country is communism, socialism, and journalism.”

In the main, though, the dispute has been carried on among those who favor a continuance of journalism, but disagree on its practices. The two Birmingham dailies—the morning Post-Herald, of the Scripps-Howard group, and the evening News, owned by S. I. Newhouse—have had to bear a heavy load of accusations concerning their role in the crisis.

In its May 17 issue, Time wrote:

…how has the News used its influence since segregation tensions began mounting last month? By burying most stories of the situation on its inside pages.

A New York Times editorial on May 14 suggested that whites of Birmingham ask themselves:

Why did our newspapers not fully publicize these [Negro] demands so that we all could know just what they were and decide for ourselves whether they were reasonable or unreasonable? Why were we so quick to blame all the trouble on outside agitators, as some of our public officials did and as our newspapers also did editorially?

In the New York Herald Tribune for May 14, Ralph McGill of The Atlanta Constitution wrote:

Alabama has had a long uninterrupted line of such guidance [as Governor Wallace’s]—from Jeff Davis’s day of oath-taking until now. The newspapers, in the writer’s opinion, largely abdicated their responsibility.”

The indictment can be summarized in three counts:

1. The Birmingham newspapers unjustifiably played down the stories of the demonstrations.

2. The newspapers failed to describe the demonstrators’ goals or the mood of the Negro community.

3. The newspapers failed to undertake responsible leadership in forming public opinion.

A case for the defense was printed in Editor & Publisher for May 18, 1963, in interviews with James E. Mills, editor of the Post-Herald, and C. B. Hanson Jr., president and publisher of the News. Excerpts from the story follow:

Mr. Hanson said that locally the radicals on both sides criticized the news coverage of the Birmingham papers. Both dailies had long ago concluded that nothing could be gained by scareheads and until bombs exploded and riots broke out last weekend, they had carried the story on inside pages…

“Editorially we tried to say that the whites and the Negroes should cooperate to solve the problem, and it was on the way to being resolved until the outside agitators came in and stirred up trouble.” [Mr. Hanson said.]

Mr. Hanson and Mr. Mills said they thought that the Negro organizations involved were using the situation in Birmingham to gain publicity and to build up their treasuries…

… Mr. Mills explained that the story had been played in low key to try to get local people to take a reasonable and calm view and keep down violence.

“There was no police brutality,” the editor declared. “Our law enforcement people restrained themselves when they were cursed, spat upon and hit by rocks. They kept their heads pretty well…

“The newspapers printed all the facts,” Mr. Mills said.

“We recognized,” he said, “that some of those leading the Negroes thrive on publicity and we did not want our columns to be their sounding board. But we are trying to do an honest news job.”

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.

There is a considerable difference in tone between the papers’ editorials. The Post-Herald, in the early days of May, refused to give the slightest credit to the intent of the demonstrations. On Monday, May 6, the lead editorial said:

It would be interesting to know how much money Martin Luther King and his associated trouble-makers have been able to collect since they began their assault upon Birmingham.

It would be even more interesting to know how this money has been spent and how much of it has found its way into the pockets of King and his lieutenants.

The fact that racial hell-raising is extremely profitable to the fomenters of trouble is the main reason why King and his crowd continue to make trouble and refuse to listen to advice from proven friends such as Attorney General Kennedy and Father Albert S. Foley, chairman of the Alabama Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

King promised Father Foley to halt the demonstrations and give responsible white and Negro leaders in Birmingham an opportunity to seek solutions to their problems. But he didn’t keep faith. He broke his promise without notice because, as one member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference explained to Father Foley, “the SCLC treasury was nearly depleted and needed the demonstrations to spark contributions.”

That’s about as plain and as cold blooded as it could be put. To see these pious leaders using children and exposing them to the hazards of street brawling to line their own pockets must be a bit nauseating even to the Justice Dept.

Even if true, the editorial could hardly be construed as an aid to clearing the air. As it was, the paper ran a correction on the editorial page the next day that included the statement:

The Post-Herald has no information to indicate money collected to support the SCLC has been appropriated for the personal use of King or anyone else and intended no such inference.

We are informed that in 1962 the SCLC board offered to “put $500,000 aside for King’s personal use” and he refused it. He, according to his assistant, draws only a dollar a year from SGLC “so as to be eligible” for group insurance.

In contrast, the News, whose publisher, Hanson, was a member of the Senior Citizens, emphasized the necessity for dealing with the demonstrations by way of the conference table. After the May 11 bombings, too, there was another difference in opinion, with the Post-Herald decrying the propinquity of federal troops, and the News citing reasons why it was logical for them to be at hand.

The facts set down here do not, of course, summarize the entire performance of the papers in the field of racial relations. It is possible, however, to make some broad observations:

1. In the early part of the month, there seemed to be an effort to insulate Birmingham readers from the national impact of the demonstrations. Little comment from outside appeared, not even wire-service material from Washington.

This isolation was shattered after the News printed on its front page a long telegram from Hanson to the President, There could be seen a considerable loosening in the appearance of dispatches from the News’s Washington bureau, and by Relman Morin of the Associated Press, who was on the scene. Until that time, however, there was little recognition in the papers that the demonstrations had caught the world’s eye. The News, in this period, used much more outside comment than the Post-Herald.

2. The failure of the papers to report in detail on the demonstrators’ objectives is apparently part of a general lack of contact with the Negro community, which comprises 34 percent of the Birmingham area population. On Sundays, the News runs a small section of Negro news and photos—less than one page. Aside from this section, only one Negro identified by name appeared in a photograph anywhere in the two papers in the first half of May. He was Willie Mays.

In this respect, the Richmond Times-Dispatch for the same period offers an enlightening contrast. Its issues are dotted with serious Richmond and Virginia stories on desegregation proceedings in the courts and on plans for future suits by Negroes. In addition, it has desegregated news of Negroes to the point where it ran a long profile of a Negro detective on the Richmond police force. All this, when its editorial attitude toward the Birmingham demonstrations was hardly more friendly than that of the Birmingham papers.

In other words, news policies of the Birmingham papers appear to be almost as segregated as has been the city itself. (It must be observed that many northern newspapers are hardly better in this respect.) In times past, these policies could perhaps be endured as a type of social custom. Now, they get in the way of full, in-depth reporting of important news. Like the Senior Citizens, the newspapers of Birmingham may have to learn how to sit down and talk with Negroes.

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.