Saturday, December 9, 2006

With "liberals" like this, who needs conservatives?

But, it would be "liberal bias" if we don't give as much space to each one of the lynch-murderers to tell what good Christian white folks they are as we give to reporting the lynching

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh. But this one may qualify for the Thomas Edsall why-would-anyone-think-this-is-"liberal" award.

I'm referring to this book review by David Greenberg in The American Prospect, which normally does provide a clearly liberal perspective: Heroes, Weren't They? Dec 2006.

It reviews a book dealing with journalists and the American civil rights movement, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of A Nation (2006).

I haven't read the book and I'm not familiar with the authors. So I'm not sure how well Greenberg's review summarizes their perspective, or how systematic a job the authors looked at press coverage. As Greenberg summarizes it, coverage of the civil rights movement, particularly television, was decisive in passing key civil rights legislation. He writes:

The new medium delivered the raw images of brutality and injustice into American living rooms, destroying any last support for Jim Crow outside the South.

Yeah, a few dramatic images on TV was all it took. That, and, oh, eight decades or so of black Americans and a few whites campaigning, writing and agitating against the "Jim Crow" segregation laws and "lynch law". And a world war in which the US emphasized democratic beliefs in equality against Hitler's race doctrine. And the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And an Eisenhower administration that tepidly enforced it. And a Kennedy administration that was quite serious about enforcing it. And a Johnson administration that intended to put an end to segregation. Yeah, with those few other things, all it took was a few TV images.

Now, Greenberg makes a point that is important and very underappreciated. Today's authoritarian Republican Party is the direct political descendant of the segregationist Southern Democratic Party of the 1960s, only with the occasional Jacksonian emphasis on economic justice purged away. Greenberg is right on the mark with this comment on the Republicans' obsession with the so-called Liberal Press:

If the civil-rights movement represented one of American journalism's finest hours, it carried a cost. It's a shame that Roberts and Klibanoff don't explicitly state the conclusion that much of their evidence suggests: Today's right-wing bogeyman of "the liberal media" originated in this struggle. Coverage of the movement convinced much of the white South that the networks, papers like the Times, and magazines like Time and Newsweek were hostile and biased interlopers that told only one side of the story.

The ensuing resentment found various modes of expression. Few correspondents left the South without a broken bone, a bad bruise, or at least a terrible scare as a souvenir.

So far, so good. But look at that first sentence just quoted. I'll include it again here with the review's final paragraph for the full effect:

If the civil-rights movement represented one of American journalism's finest hours, it carried a cost. ...

Ultimately, politicians - notably Alabama Governor George Wallace -- capitalized on this resentment. Wallace cited journalists alongside pointy-headed intellectuals and the Supreme Court in his litany of elitist villains who were screwing the little guy. Richard Nixon, too, picked up the strategy, which he bequeathed to men like Roger Ailes and Karl Rove. Thus, while Roberts and Klibanoff are right to celebrate these journalists for bravely documenting the cruelty of Jim Crow and helping to hasten its demise, their legacy is more ambiguous. For in choosing to support right over wrong, good over evil, they fueled a distrust and resentment of what we now call "the mainstream media" that has, over the years, only grown in virulence. (my emphasis)

You see, the conspiracy theory isn't rightwing propaganda based on kooky conspiracy theories about a Jewish press conspiracy - try pressing a devout Republican some time as to who they think controls this Liberal Press they obsess endlessly about.

No, no, it's because those uppity Negroes in the South stirred up all that trouble and got those disturbing images on television a couple of times a year. Would any good Christian Republican white person argue with that assessment.

Good Lord, how hopeless can a writer be? True, the press in the 1960s hadn't deteriorated to the prostrate, kiss-the-feet-of-the-powerful state that it's reached today. But the national press had since 1875 or so to provide coverage of the real state of affairs in the South, and they did dang little of it unless people started raising hell about their real problems.

Greenberg is right that the Southern white-folks whine about the biased press who didn't tell the world how the blacks were persecuting the white folks all over the South was a major contributor, even the main source historically, of the current ravings about the Liberal Press that we hear today. Nixon and Agnew made complaining about The Media a key part of their Southern Strategy to appeals to the "white backlash" vote and elaborated on it.

But I would also say that rightwing organizations like the John Birch Society who emphasized anti-Communism more than race also contributed significantly to the Liberal Press conspiracy theory. The Birchers called the evil ones "the Insiders" rather than "the Jews", but "the Jews" is what they meant. Joe McCarthy's fans were ready to believe that the national press was infested with Communists who wanted to turn the United States over to the Soviet Union. Those ideas fed the Liberal Press myth, as well.

The nonsense about the civil rights movement being to blame for the Republicans selling themselves on a deluded conspiracy theory about the Liberal Press is par for the course - for cynical white people. It was a stock claim among Southern segregationists, that Southern blacks were perfectly happy with the way things were until "outside agitators" came in and started stirring things up. And the blacks protesting was likely to make things worse rather than better, and yadda, yadda. Someone asked Martin Luther King at one point if he weren't worried aboutprovoking a "white backlash". He replied that it looked to him like a lot of whites had been backlashing for quite a while already.

Then there's the factual question about the press. Did mainstream news reporters act as partisans in the civil rights movement? The short answer is no. But since Greenberg lumps together more advocacy-oriented magazines like urban African-American papers and Jet (which was and is hardly some leftwing rag) with ABC-TV and dailies like the New York Times, his assertion amounts to little more than a substance-free endorsement of the ridiculous Republican Liberal Press meme.

Greenberg opens his review with a story about Peter Kihss of the New York Times at the Univesity of Alabama in 1956 jumping in to confront what Greenberg describes as "mobs of racist thugs" who were surrounding a car with two blacks in it and gave the distinct impression that intended to do harm to the occupants. Kihss jumped in front of the goons as said, "I'm a reporter for The New York Times, and I've gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama. Now I'll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time." The brave defenders of the white race then boldly backed down when they realized they might have to take a punch or two and possibly face actual consequences for their actions.

Greenberg uses this as an example of a reporter taking sides. He doesn't comment on the content of Kihss' actual reporting. This is sad, really sad. A Northerner (presumably white) who sees a bunch of goons about to maul an older man and a young woman had the guts to jump and do what any decent person would have wanted to do. And this is evidence of media bias?

I suppose it would have been more fair and even-handed if instead Kihss had watched the mob beat the two up or kill them or drag them off to be lynched (i.e., tortured and murdered) and then written a story about it. A story, including of course, statements from members of the mob denying it and the local shurff saying that he heard the two Negroes were shacking up in a motel somewhere. It makes me want to throw up.

The truth of it was, in 1900 as well as in 1956 or 1965, the segregation system denied American citizens basic Constitutional rights and was part of a larger social system of white supremacy, blatant discrimination in every aspect of life, and brutal violence occasionally used to remind African-Americans of their proper "place". Any reporting that told the story in anything like a realistic way would have shown most Americans that the Deep South was maintaining a way of life that was drastically different in important ways from the rest of the United States. And one that would have disgusted most of them.

Finally starting to tell that story in a more systematic way was something the national press would never have done without the civil rights movement insisting on having the American form of democracy practiced in the South. The fact that the national press eventually got around to doing so isn't a lesson about the perils of the "Liberal Press". It's a case of "better late than never".

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