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The Kerner Commission and the Media
Time magazine, 1967
March 28, 2008

In addition to tracing the 1967 civil disorders to root causes of poverty, inequality in income and education, crime and racial injustice, The Kerner Commission singled out the media for criticism. In the section, "The Communications Media, Ironically, Have Failed to Communicate" the report stated: "We have found a significant imbalance between what actually happened in our cities and what the newspaper, radio and television coverage of the riots told us happened," The Commission criticized the media's use of "scare" headlines, and exaggeration of the scope of the riots. (For example: At the height of the Detroit riot, some news reports of property damage put the figure in excess of $500 million. Subsequent investigation shows it to be $40 to $45 million.)

But the Commission also targeted deeper seated problems in the media:

Our second and fundamental criticism is that the news media have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States and, as a related matter, to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism. By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions.
The Commission had several recommendations for the media:
News organizations must employ enough Negroes in positions of significant responsibility to establish an effective link to Negro actions and ideas and to meet legitimate employment expectations. Tokenism—the hiring of one Negro reporter, or even two or three—is no longer enough.

The news media must publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of the Negro, both as a Negro and as part of the community. It would be a contribution of inestimable importance to race relations in the United States simply to treat ordinary news about Negroes as news of other groups is now treated.

James Hiram Malone, Ghetto Headlines, National Archive
James Hiram Malone, GHETTO HEADLINES, National Archive

Both the Eisenhower Commission's 40th anniversary assessment and the Kerner Plus 40 project undertaken by The Annenberg School for Communication and the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies (IFAJS) at North Carolina A&T State University, found that many problems remain in today's media. Darnell M. Hume noted in "The media and race, 40 years after Kerner" that "forty years after Kerner we continue to confront a reality in which news stories are routinely told 'from the standpoint of a white man's world.'" The Eisenhower Foundation Report found that "locally and nationally, there is little room for covering a host of issues that affect families, neighborhoods and communities. ....Coverage of minority communities, women, rural communities....and just about everyone else who doesn't live in a handful of ZIP codes in places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC is badly warped and leads to ill-informed attitudes and misrepresentations in American society."

Both studies trace some of the continuing problems to increasing concentration in the media. As BILL MOYERS JOURNAL has reported, minority media ownership is set to decline further as FCC ownership cap rules are relaxed. In 2007 out of more than 10,000 radio stations nationwide, they own only 635 - or just about six percent. And African-Americans and Latinos own only 33 of the nation's 1350 TV stations.

MayorTV's Andrea Batista Schlesinger noted in our interview with her that much coverage of the urban world still follows the "if it bleeds it leads" formula — like the headlines in James Hiram Malone's painting "Ghetto Headlines," pictured above.

How do you think the media's doing? Tell us on the Blog.

Published on March 28, 2008.

Related Media:
Minority Media
BILL MOYERS JOURNAL reports on the real-world consequences of media policy through the lens of how it affects minority media ownership in America.

OTakin' It to the Streets ...Again
Bill Moyers asks why the news media's overlooking today's protesters.

References and Reading:
The Eisenhower Foundation: Forty Year Update of the Kerner Riot Commission
The Commission has released 25 and 30-year updates of the Kerner Report. Those reports and the preliminary findings of the new report are online at the site.

"The Communications Media, Ironically, Have Failed to Communicate": The Kerner Report Assesses Media Coverage of Riots and Race Relations, 1968.

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders
Read the executive summary and conclusion of the original report.

"Forty Years On: Kerner and the Liberal Media," John Ridley, THE HUFFINGTON POST.COM
Commentator John Ridley takes the NEW YORK TIMES and others to task: "For all the areas of society in which blacks -- and by extension all minorities -- have enjoyed some measure of parity, there is one glaring and ironic omission: the very media which is so often accused of having a liberal bias. It is, in fact, only liberal in its decades-long run of institutionalized discrimination."

"30 years after Kerner report, some say racial divide wider"
CNN's 1998 report on the 30th anniversary of the report.

"The Kerner Commission Report and the Failed Legacy of Liberal Social Policy"
Stephan Thernstrom, Fred Siegel, and Robert Woodson, Sr. June 24, 1998. The Heritage Foundation's assessment of the report and its legacy.

Kerner Plus 40
The Annenberg School for Communication and the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies (IFAJS) at North Carolina A&T State University have undertaken a joint project to determine how this nation has responded to the Kerner Commission's recommendations.

ONLINE NEWSHOUR: A Nation Divided? The 1998 NEWSHOUR report on the Kerner Commission update. The findings sparked a debate over the state of racial equality and what should be done to improve the situation. Elizabeth Farnsworth explores the debate with four experts.

Revolution '67
Air on POV on PBS, REVOLUTION '67 is an account of events too often relegated to footnotes in U.S. history — the black urban rebellions of the 1960s. Focusing on the six-day Newark, New Jersey, outbreak in mid-July 1967, the film reveals how the disturbance began as spontaneous revolts against poverty and police brutality and ended as fateful milestones in America's struggles over race and economic justice.

Also This Week:

THE JOURNAL looks at an update of the Kerner Commission Report, which blamed the violence on the devastating poverty and hopelessness endemic in the inner cities of the 1960s and includes an interview with former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, one of the last living members of the Kerner Commission.

Forty years after race riots in Detroit, Newark, and dozens of other cities stunned the nation, has anything changed? Bill Moyers interviews Newark Mayor Cory Booker for a frontline report on race and politics today.

Find out what America's mayors really want for their cities and from the candidates. Plus, 10 things you probably didn't know about our cities.

The Kerner Commission and the media — then and now.

Tell us about the state of your city.

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