As the violence unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend, many journalists scrambled, trying not to explain just the violent clashes but identify the participants and detail the white nationalist movement. For some, the events called to mind the early days of the civil rights movement—and the challenge it presented to reporters covering it. We asked three veteran journalists to share their thoughts on what reporters today can learn from the civil rights era, their critiques of current coverage of racism and hate groups, and more. Here’s what they had to say.
Bill Kovach, NF ’89, is the former curator of the Nieman Foundation. The former editor of The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, he covered the civil rights movement for The [Nashville] Tennessean in the 1960s.
Hank Klibanoff, who was managing editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 2002-2008, is the co-author with Gene Roberts (NF ’62) of “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History.
Richard A. Oppel served as the editor of the Austin American-Statesman from 1995-2008 and is a former chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board.
What We Can Learn from Coverage of the Civil Rights Movement
Klibanoff: The first thing that comes to my mind is what we know about the best way to have covered it back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s and the best way to cover it now is up close. And that these are not issues or events or people that can be covered from afar. The only way to really get at that story is to get out among the people that are most affected, whether that’s people who were affected in an active way or in a passive way.
Kovach: [When I was covering the civil rights movement for the Nashville Tennessean,] there were no guidelines, written or unwritten, but Nashville was also home to several young college students who would go on to become inspired leaders of the civil rights movement. I and other reporters at the paper did articles on the Rev. James Lawson, who was training young black students in workshops based on Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful protest techniques. Their focus was to protest against segregated lunch counters in downtown stores and movie theater seating. [These were] leaders like Diane Nash, John Lewis, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and Marion Barry. Covering them, in retrospect, taught me to be more questioning of power, and those with access to power.
The most obvious advice is that you can never have enough sources. The single most important thing is to build sources you can rely on. Having covered the Rev. Lawson’s training sessions and the kids he trained gave me wide access to actors on that side of the story. So a few suggestions: Any time you’re going to an unfamiliar area or an unfamiliar subject ask around the newsroom if anyone has contacts or sources that might help. If you’re going to a particular place, ask also if they know people in that place you might call. If you have time, call them in advance and ask for others there who might help. Check you own news organization’s files for recent stories on the subject or area to find possible contacts or sources. Make sure you know experts in subjects you cover in your local community, especially at colleges and universities who can keep you up to date on information on subject areas you are responsible for. They can also help out of town with colleagues at institutions in the area you’re heading to. Attorneys are especially good sources. One of the best I had in Alabama was an attorney, who I was introduced to by an attorney in Nashville. His contact in Alabama not only had contact with people in the movement but also with contacts in law enforcement and lawyers representing local and regional politicians who might at times prove helpful.
Oppel: I’m not sure there’s a lot of similarities between the civil rights reporting of the ’60s and early ’70s and this alt-right movement that’s going on now. I think this virtually is a terrorist movement. If I were going to compare it, I would compare it to coverage of Al Qaeda—how are they organized, how do they communicate, how are they financed, what are their political ties. There are similarities to the civil rights period certainly in terms of some of those things and to the question of race and ethnicity and so on but there’s something different here; I really regard these more as terrorists.
What’s similar [to reporters covering the civil rights movement] is that there’s a risk of bodily harm in coverage of violent groups, but that’s always been the case, whether it’s been coverage of the civil rights movement or coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan or current violent political protests. So that’s a challenge.
Critique of Today’s Coverage of Racial Violence and Hate Groups
Oppel: One of my critiques is we’re too reliant on social media and not sufficiently on shoe-leather reporting on the scene and wherever the information takes you. As I [wrote on Facebook], when the Ku Klux Klan marched in Tallahassee in 1977, the Tallahassee Democrat recorded the license tags of the cars and pretty well concluded that most of these men were employed by a paper mill down in Perry, Florida, about 60 miles south of Tallahassee.
I was the editor of the Democrat at the time and I don’t remember who made that assignment, but it allowed us to pick up some pretty interesting information about the Klansmen. Is that kind of thing being done now? [In Charlottesville], I think a lot of the attention has been focused on the police …[or] has looked very carefully at the driver, but what about the group as a whole? When I look at those pictures, I see these bright, shining faces and well-cropped hair and think, ‘my gosh, they look like the heart of the Midwest.’ Who are they? How did they get to this point where they took on helmets and armored vests and weapons and did what they did?
Klibanoff: [Looking at the coverage of Charlottesville], I think that a lot of the people worked really hard over the weekend to deliver the best possible coverage they could to people, but I don’t come away with what I’ve read today knowing that much more about who these white people were—I’m talking about the whites who were demonstrating against the removal of the statue if that was their cause, who were taking up the white supremacist cause. And I think it’s worth knowing who they are, and also, I want to know more about who the anti-fascist people are. I think anyone who looked at the photographs over the weekend came away very confused about who’s who, which is interesting. Back in the day, when you saw white supremacists in a physical altercation with civil rights forces, you could, for the most part, tell who was on what side because it was the difference between who was white and who was black. That’s not to say there weren’t white people helping out in the civil rights struggle, there certainly were, but generally, you look at those pictures from Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham in 1963 and you have a pretty good idea who’s on whose side. You don’t get that out of Charlottesville, which makes it a lot harder for news organizations to ferret that out.
So even if you can’t point at photographs and say ‘he is with this group, he’s with that group,’ because you just don’t know always, there needs to be greater definition of who these people are and a greater attempt to make them defend their values and what they’re doing and their actions.
Kovach: I think the biggest problem with coverage of social unrest today is because of the impact of new technology on the economics of journalism. In addition to online publishing’s pressure to report unendingly and quickly, the deep reduction of income for print has been unmatched online and caused the closure of bureaus in more sparsely populated regions. This led to the least effective coverage of a presidential campaign in memory in part because it was unable to witness and report the growth of a large body of depressed and despairing white Americans. We are still struggling to recover from that failure.
We certainly failed to see the extent and depth of the rise of the white backlash. If we had been covering the growth of these groups we wouldn’t have been surprised by Trump or by Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a reminder to us, as it was to the police who couldn’t seem to figure out a way to deal with the situation, that we have to ramp up our game. We are living in a time when social and political forces are deeply divided and each is struggling to develop sources and methods to enhance their position over the other. Just as journalists had to figure out a way to cover the civil rights movement, we will have to discover how to cover the reaction to the success of that movement. It does, after all, incorporate around 30-40 percent of our population. No journalism can ignore that population and survive. That cannot be done without a better understanding of who and what the movement is all about and what its goals are but coverage must also include a better understanding about how the other side intends to deal with the changing power alignment.
On Giving Hate Groups a Platform in the Media
Oppel: Yes, you can inflame the situation by heralding these guys—I mean, these people are evil, there’s no question about that. But we need to probe deeper about whether this is a significant social movement. For example, the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville that is now in what is called Emancipation Park—it is their apparent symbol and the need to protect the history of the United States and the Confederacy and so on. If I understand correctly, that statue was erected around 1924—not in the wake of the Civil War. It’s a recent occurrence and it coincides with the resurgence of the Klan in the ’20s. And we have the same thing happening here today—a social movement of consequence that we need to probe much more deeply than we have thus far. I think we’ve got to go to the next step or two and since this is an outrageous incident [in Charlottesville], where there was real, lethal violence used, this is a great news peg to dive deep on it.
Klibanoff: What reporters do is go as deep as they can on who the people are and what their causes are and what their emotions are—that’s one big decision, just to go out and report on who they are, learn who they are, get to know them. The other decision is well, what do you publish. You hope that news organizations are publishing or are broadcasting only really a small percentage of what they know. So I might have concerns with giving excessive airtime or print space to white nationalist ideology and to what might be their illogical and irrational and ahistorical thinking—I mean their total misunderstanding of history and you know twisting of history—but I have no problems with the news reporters that are out there learning as much as they can about these people. In many cases the more these people are put on the air or given the space to talk, they become less and less rational. I don’t think we really understand who all these people are.
How to Improve and Expand Coverage of White Nationalists and the Alt-Right
Oppel: I think there is more of an inclination to follow the news, to come off of spot news since online is so much more important and that hot stories are the ones that developed yesterday while the more meaningful ones are the ones that, to quote an old editor, ‘it’s the news that oozes,’ [the ones that are] evolving very slowly. You can’t see it in one incident; you have to step back and survey it more methodically and patiently and pull out a bunch of strings.
Do we have the resources and the editorial patience to do that anymore? We surely need it. There’s no substitute for basic shoe-leather reporting where you go out and knock on doors and figure out who was involved and how they arrived at this point in their lives and who are the leaders and are they connected politically to elected officials, how high does it go, etc.
Klibanoff: The news organizations that I’ve been with were always sort of dependent on reporters who never worked a 9-5 day but who were constantly churning out ideas and constantly going off on their own and constantly taking an hour here to venture off on a story or an hour there. My question would be, how many reporters try to steal the time to go down to their local municipal court and just watch the humanity coming into that court facing the judicial system for running the stop sign, for the broken taillight, for these seemingly small crimes that as we know from Ferguson blew up into a big point of contention since the system was clearly targeting African-Americans. I think if you go into those municipal courthouses all across this country, you would find that it’s very much like Ferguson. There are times when you have to sort of hope that you have reporters that will go off on their own or who will become persuasive enough with their editor that they can get the clearance to do that.[In addition, where I’m from,] we don’t know what AntiFa is. I don’t even know how to pronounce it. I mean I can look it up, but what does that mean? I think it catches many people off-guard, and they’re put off by what they don’t know. Those people who are out there—and I’m thinking mainstream white people who may not be pleased with how the country’s been going the last 30 years, who may have voted for Trump though they may not really like him but wanted to send a message—this is an opportunity for news organizations to educate them because they are hungry to learn. And the media owes that to them. That was one of the issues that emerged during the last campaign.
Kovach: [Most importantly,] we’d better get it right because fact-based journalism itself will not last nor will a democratic society long exist in a world in which anyone with a computer and access to the internet can create her or his own news organization providing each and every one of us her or his own set of facts and information.