We regret the omission…

Monday, July 26, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

The apology was as noteworthy for its belatedness as it was for its straightforwardness. On July 4, the Lexington Herald-Leader issued the following statement, as part of a series of articles on the fortieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act:

“CLARIFICATION: It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.”

Linda Blackford and Linda Minch, columnists for the paper, went on to add that “These memories have made it into master's theses and oral histories as stories of Lexington's rich civil-rights struggle. But until now, they'd never made it into the local newspaper. The people in charge of recording the ‘first rough draft of history,’ as journalism is sometimes called, ignored sit-ins and marches, or relegated them to small notices in the back pages. The omissions by the city's two newspapers, the Lexington Herald and the Lexington Leader, weren't simply mistakes or oversights, according to local civil rights leaders and former employees of the newspapers. The papers' management actively sought to play down the movement.”

“The rare march or protest that made front-page news usually involved arrests of demonstrators and was described in the terse, clipped tones of a police report. It was a standing order that an effort at a dining room or restaurant or march would not get Page One coverage, that it would go inside,” said Don Mills, an editorial page writer in 1968, who later became editor of the Herald. “The management's view was that the less publicity it got, the quicker the problem would go away.”

The columnists also noted that many critics “believe the papers did irreparable harm by failing to provide that first rough draft of history -- the details that slip from memories as years ago by. ‘Silence can be a pretty frightful thing,’ said state historian and Georgetown College professor James Klotter. ‘The effect is that the story hasn't been told, the acts of courage and the acts of resistance and all those things that made up the civil rights movement in Lexington at that time. Those stories still remain too hidden from the public view, and over time, they will be lost.”

All in all, it’s a remarkable admission of journalistic complicity in the oppression of a people. And, as overdue as the apology may be, it is definitely welcome. But, let’s take the opportunity to ask a more powerful question: Has the (North) American media learned anything since the 1950s and 1960s that would prevent such a glaring “oversight” from occurring again? Unfortunately, based on their actions over the past three or four years, the answer is clearly no.

It is true that some media outlets have now acknowledged that they were wrong to believe and regurgitate what the Bush Administration told them prior to and since the onset of the second war in Iraq. For example, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer admitted recently to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart (who, as a comedian, is a far better journalist than most people who carry the title) that reporters “should have been more skeptical”.

Meanwhile, on May 26, the venerable New York Times published an editorial which critically examined its own coverage of the march to war. “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge… Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these [Iraqi] exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one… It is still possible that chemical or biological weapons will be unearthed in Iraq, but in this case it looks as if we, along with the administration, were taken in.”

Those who had long criticized The Times’ war coverage (the group FAIR – Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting should take a bow, for one) could feel somewhat vindicated at this commentary. But, the crucial point remains that the Bush administration is still being let off the hook for what had become blatantly obvious to many observers: it wasn’t that the administration was “taken in” or that it “fell for misinformation”; Bush and his officials lied. They lied to Americans, they lied to Iraqis and they lied to the United Nations. Until a major news outlet has the courage to say that (and let’s hope it doesn’t take forty years for that to happen), the people will not be getting the service they deserve from their news media. If they do not do that (and commit to applying a more critical eye to future pronouncements from The White House and The Pentagon) the real stories may be lost forever – just like in Kentucky during the civil rights movement.

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