1957: A press watershed | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

1957: A press watershed

Posted By on Wed, Nov 22, 2006 at 8:19 AM

There is, naturally, an Arkansas angle in a new book, "The Race Beat," by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, that reviews press coverage of the civil rights struggle. NY Times writes about the book today. (The writer apparently hasn't heard the correct recitation of peacemaker Orval Faubus' role in a famous event.) For a time, the book says, reporters missed the boat -- underestimating both the strength of blacks' desire for change and the depth of segregationist opposition.  From the review:

The Times, they recount, “failed to note that the region was about to explode.”

“The rigidity and popular appeal of the hard-core segregationist movement,” they continue, “and the determination of an increasingly emboldened Negro population were dismissed amid a lot of sociological camouflage.”

The “cataclysmic” explosion occurred the next year at Little Rock, when the Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, tried to block the court-ordered integration of an all-white high school. Mobs of hostile whites threatened the black students and assaulted reporters. Army troops stifled the disorder and protected the students, but Mr. Roberts and Mr. Klibanoff cite Little Rock as “a turning point in how the gathering racial storm was presented to the American people and the world.”

After Little Rock, they write, “news organizations would change, in just about every respect, the way they covered” the civil rights story. At The Times that change included naming Claude Sitton as the new Southern correspondent. Mr. Sitton’s writing “packed massive amounts of information into taut word pictures,” Mr. Roberts and Mr. Klibanoff explain, and in Mr. Sitton’s six years on the race beat, “nobody in the news business would have as much impact as he would on the reporting of the civil rights movement, on the federal government’s response, or on the movement itself.”


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