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Do Apologies for Past News Coverage Change Today's Reality?

The lessons learned from the country's reaction to the '60s-era civil rights movement could inform our coverage of many current civil rights struggles -- if we let them.
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My friend Richard Prince has an interesting item on his Web site about the Tallahassee Democrat's decision to apologize for coverage of the civil rights era which sided with segregationists.

Fifty years ago this past week, two Florida A&M students were arested for refusing to get off the Whites only section of a bus. It was the beginning of a months-long bus boycott in Tally, months after Rosa Parks' arrest ignited a similar protest in Montgomery, Ala., and the Tallahassee Democrat did what most big papers do in such situations -- it sided with the mainstream, which meant supporting the segregationists.

"Leaders in that journey toward equality should have been able to expect support in ending segregation from the local daily newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat," wrote the newspaper's publisher and executive editor in an essay. "They could not. We not only did not lend a hand, we openly opposed integration, siding firmly with the segregationists."

Such apologies have surfaced intermittently in recent years, as southern newspapers which didn't have the stones of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under Eugene Patterson (see what I mean here and here) have stepped forward to admit how badly they misjudged the civil rights movement, focusing their coverage to ignore its leading lights and support the racist subjugation of black Americans.

In July 2004, the Lexington Herald-Leader apologized for its coverage of the civil rights movement in commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Civil rights act of 1964. That same year, the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi issued a similar apology for ignoring the Freedom Summer protests after the 1964 killing of three cilvil rights workers in that state. And the Birmingham News in February published an array of photos from the civil rights era that it suppressed back in the day.

That such apologies are still controversial remains saddening. That it took 40 years for these institutions to admit their missteps is maddening. And while some object to them as dredging up old news -- somehow I doubt those who were marginalized in articles seeking to downplay racial violence of that time would feel similarly -- I resist them for another reason.

Apologies for the past are nice. But what are we doing about the future?

The fact is, the lessons learned from the country's reaction to the '60s-era civil rights movement could inform our coverage of many current civil rights struggles -- if we let them. But many news outlets remain hesistant to transfer those lesson to new fronts -- perhaps challenging the way the GOP scapegoated gay people for the 2004 elections, or fingering the xenophobia at the heart of many anti-immigration protests or identifying new civil rights struggles in their midst.

Instead, the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004 told two lesbian journalists who were married that they could not cover gay marriage issues, kicking off an industrywide debate. And cable TV news shouters from Lou Dobbs to Bill O'Reilly have found surging ratings in playing to conservatives' worst fears about illegal immigration.

Can you imagine a mother of children in public school being told she can't cover education for a major newspaper? Or black journalists being told they can't write about racial issues? Or the nation's editorial boards tolerating an anti-biracial marriage Constitutional amendment proposal as a way of ginning up votes for an upcoming election?

Instead of learning the importance of respecting all civil rights struggles in our coverage, many journalists have chosen to act as if the black American Civil Rights movement was a moment trapped in amber -- a special case that rarely informs how we react to new events or situations. Thus we are left with the irony of GOP strategists apologizing for past use of anti-black sentiment to gain votes while manipulating anti-gay sentiments to the same end.

Hey newspaper editors of today: you want to really atone for past civil rights transgressions? Don't close your eyes to the new struggles under your nose. And learn to take a stand when it counts -- not 40 years after the battle is done.

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