The golden anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech have appropriately fostered among a great many people unalloyed feelings of pride and nostalgia. Here was a moment of peaceful assembly, a mass redress of elemental grievances of the people, by the people, and for the people, that was capped off by one of the most memorable speeches in American history — one that has eerie relevance 50 years later. That day the meek raised their voices, sounding in the name of justice, and the rest of the nation listened. Soon there was a Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act. But as we look back closely on the events of late August 1963, we are reminded, too, of how those events were (or were not) covered by the journalists of that day. It’s easy to look back and glorify the events of August 28, 1963 — to see in speaker John Lewis, for example, a portrait of the hero he would become, 559 days later, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But that’s not necessarily how the March and the Speech were covered in real time. There was in 1963 a level of “false equivalence” in reporting on civil rights that, in the name of “objectivity,” equated black demands for racial equality with white concerns about getting there.
So one of the ironies of our own time isn’t just that we commemorate the March and the speech in the shadow of a national counter movement to disenfranchise minority voters. It’s also that there is again a level of “false equivalence” in the reporting of voter suppression laws around the country. Fifty years from now, on the centennial anniversary of the March, our successors-in-interest will look back upon our coverage of today’s voting rights fight and say: look at how reluctant they were to call these laws what they really were; look at how eager they were to again parrot the lines of the public officials who defended suppressive measures.
My Atlantic colleague James Fallows this week mentioned some of the false equivalence that marked coverage of the March. Let me share another compelling example. In “The Race Beat,” the marvelous book about media coverage of the civil rights struggle, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell the story of Howard K. Smith, the television journalist who began his career at CBS News but left for ABC News in 1961 after a run-in with CBS officials over what we now might call “false equivalence” in reporting about racial inequality in Birmingham, Alabama. Smith’s work, a CBS Reports documentary titled “Who Speaks for Birmingham?” aired with great controversy.