Two weeks ago, I visited Little Rock, Ark., with my parents. The day after visiting Bill Clinton’s presidential library, we drove to a more suburban part of the city to see Little Rock Central High School and the accompanying little museum.
After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, integration began in the nation’s schools. In 1957, nine African-American students attempted to attend Central High. Protests, threats and harassment were rampant, and Gov. Orval Faubus attempted to keep the students from the school. In the end, President Eisenhower had to call in the 101st Airborne to protect the students, while federalizing the state’s National Guard.
The museum had the displays you’d expect. A history of discrimination, photos and audio of protests and sit-ins. Video of news broadcasts and press conferences. It was a display in the middle of the museum, however, that caught my attention. This display was simply called “The Press.” It displayed headlines and front pages from the Little Rock crisis, and explained how in many cases, throngs of reporters and photographers took the brunt of protesters’ anger, acting as a buffer for the nine students.
I just started reading a book, “The Race Beat,” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. I found it in the site’s museum. It’s a fascinating story about journalists’ role in the civil rights movement. In many cases, it’s not that these journalists “took sides.” It’s that they bothered to cover the movement and the inequality at all. It’s that they allowed civil rights leaders the opportunity to present their cases. The cause also showed up in staff editorials, when progressive editors, both black and white, called for change. It’s a powerful reminder of a free press’s necessary role in a democracy. One can’t exist without the other.
Reading about this time period reminds me of lessons I learned while in school. Journalists don’t exist in a vacuum. We’re not mindless automans, reading the weather and sports agate like robots. I also learned that while we should always strive for fair coverage, we should never think that fair automatically means equal. Or that equal automatically means fair.