Pulitzer-winning Book Examines Media and Civil Rights Movement

May 18, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: The press, other than black newspapers and a handful of liberal southern editors, simply didn’t recognize racism in America as a story, so write the authors of a book that tells how the media first ignored a major problem in American society, and then rallied to alert the nation to the great changes unfolding in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

The book, “The Race Beat,” has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for history. Its authors are Gene Roberts, who himself covered the story and much else in a long and distinguished journalism career that included 18 years as executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.

His co-author is Hank Klibanoff, managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Welcome, and congratulations to you.

HANK KLIBANOFF, Winner, Pulitzer Prize for History: Thank you.

GENE ROBERTS, Winner, Pulitzer Prize for History: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Starting with you, Mr. Roberts, you were yourself a participant. Why did you want to tell this story in a book?

GENE ROBERTS: Quite simply, I thought the race story was probably the most important domestic story in America in the 20th century. And the press’s roll in it, for good or bad, depending on your viewpoint, never had been told.

'Willful' ignorance of situation

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Klibanoff, the quote that I read there about it not being recognized as the story, was that willful neglect or part of the culture? Why wasn't it recognized early on?

HANK KLIBANOFF: By and large, it was a very much a part of the culture. There was always sort of the black part of town where whites didn't go, and where they turned their eyes away from, and certainly they turn their eyes away from some of the more despicable parts of life and the poverty-stricken areas, the destitute-stricken areas.

And it was in large part willful. I think, in the backs of their minds, southerners knew what was going on, but the system was working for them in so many ways, for the white people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And staying with you, I read that you saw this firsthand yourself, not as a reporter in the beginning, but as a delivery boy of your local paper.

HANK KLIBANOFF: Well, I was younger. I was 14 years old in 1963. I had a paper route. I delivered the Birmingham News. In my home town of Florence, Alabama, the newspapers ran the stories about what was happening in Birmingham. It was all over national television. It was a huge national story. It was seen around the world.

And yet in the newspaper that I was delivering, the Birmingham News, you couldn't find the story on page one. And, in fact, when you got to the pages that they relegated civil rights stories to, which would be pages two and three, you wouldn't find a picture of the dogs, and you wouldn't find a picture of the hoses. They just decided to downplay that altogether.

Drawing the mainstream press

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Roberts, there was -- the story was being told in the black press.

GENE ROBERTS: Yes. You know, a funny thing. Most Americans didn't know the black press existed, but, at peak, in the late 1940s and early '50s, it was reaching more than two million black households. And, arguably, there wouldn't have been a civil rights movement without the black press that conditioned several generations of Americans, of black Americans to expect and, in fact, work for racial change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was there an event that changed things for the mainstream, the white press? What happened?

GENE ROBERTS: The pivotal event, the event that drew the northern press into the South, first in large numbers, was the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 for perhaps whistling at a white woman in a country store, in a small Mississippi town.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it took an event like that, with that kind of gruesome story, to galvanize everyone?

GENE ROBERTS: Yes. And it was first publicized, not in the white press, but in the black press in Chicago, and white newspapers picked up on it, mainstream newspapers. And, ultimately, you got 50 or 60 journalists packed in a small courtroom in the South, and the journalists group included some black journalists, which was remarkable at that time and place.

Editors' and reporters' role

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Klibanoff, in the story that you're telling, there are certainly any number of editors and reporters who took some courage to tell some things and say some things that went against what the sentiment was in their communities.

HANK KLIBANOFF: Well, that's true. There were some very strong editorial voices in the South, Harry Ashmore in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Ralph McGill here in Atlanta, Harding Carter in Greenville, Mississippi. And these were all southerners. They were born and bred in the South. They were raised in a very segregated atmosphere.

They, along with quite a few journalists, reporters, who were on the front lines of the story, who also were raised in very segregated households, and who had to overcome their own childhood predispositions to see the truth of the story and to see the situation that black people found themselves in. And the reporters were pretty shocked and dismayed by what they saw when they finally got to see it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Roberts, is your thesis here that the press was doing more than telling a story, that it became a kind of participant and an agent of change, as well?

GENE ROBERTS: Well, certainly, the liberal and moderate editors in the South. Politicians, most southern politicians, were telling southerners they didn't really have to obey the Supreme Court decision, that they could interpose -- a state could interpose itself between the federal government and the people.

This was nonsense, of course, and had no real legal support, but, nevertheless, people believed it. And the editors were the ones who said, "We have to face reality. We are part of a nation. We have to respect national law." And they bridged a gap between the North and South that might have gotten wider had it not been for these editors.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, Mr. Klibanoff?

HANK KLIBANOFF: While there were the very strong editorial voices that Gene spoke about, some of the powerful work that came out of the South was from reporters who fundamentally were supplying stenographic reports of what they saw.

What they saw the brutality, they described it. And when they described it, it landed on the front pages of papers like the New York Times. And it had a very catalytic effect on Americans when they would read these stories. And that is among the -- those are among the things that propelled Americans to stand up and act.

Lessons learned about journalism

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Roberts, your own experience in writing this book, I couldn't help but note that it was some 16 years in the making.

GENE ROBERTS: Yes, very much so.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's a story that I hear sometimes from authors that it took 16 or 20 years or so. Why did it take that long? What kind of research and reporting went into something like this?

GENE ROBERTS: Well, both Hank and I had to take time out at various points in our career, but, basically, we stuck with the story over a very long time frame. The facets of the story were so complex, and so little research had been done in this area, that virtually everything we did had to be done from scratch on the press.

Also, we shouldn't go without noting that the racial story was the first time television had a real news impact on America.

JEFFREY BROWN: These were the early years of television, so it was...

GENE ROBERTS: Right. And, in fact, television learned to cover a big news story in Little Rock, Arkansas, when the mobs gathered in front of Central High School.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, Mr. Klibanoff, you're still at an important paper there in the South, still covering the South of today. I just wonder, are there any lessons from all this reporting and research that you've done in this book, are there lessons for journalism today?

HANK KLIBANOFF: Well, there are many lessons. And when you look at the way various newspapers covered stories, and in some ways ignored the stories, you come away with a real sense of the vital importance of a newspaper in a democracy.

You look at the Arkansas Gazette and the way it swarmed the big story. They covered every aspect of the story at Central High School, and they carried all the transcripts and all the press conferences. And they completely -- they covered it from the very beginning to the very end, and they stayed with it.

And you see lessons in just the importance of writing about the status quo. It's something Gene talks a lot about, and I talk a lot about, that reporters, if they go out and just write what they see, sometimes they'll be shocked by the response that people get.

Life is difficult out there for a lot of people, and it's incumbent upon newspapers to go out and write those stories where there's drama sometimes, where there's happiness, where there's celebration, but also where there's contentiousness, and it's an ongoing responsibility of the press to tell those stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book is "The Race Beat." Gene Roberts, Hank Klibanoff, thank you both very much, and congratulations again.

GENE ROBERTS: Thank you.

HANK KLIBANOFF: Thank you. Appreciate it.