Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Journalistic Malpractice by The Washington Post - Coverage of the March on Washington

Aerial view of the 1963 March on Washington, looking north from the Washington Monument. (Martin S. Trikosko/Library)

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous, "I Have a Dream" speech. Intended to be a peaceful gathering in our nations capital, to draw attention to the issues of  jobs and inequality, many people didn't see or anticipate it to be just that.

I recently came across an admission of journalistic malpractice by The Washington Post, that is worthy of us all reading.

An overlooked dream, now remembered

The city of Washington had been on edge for days. Fearing a riot, mayhem or lord knows what, many left town to avoid the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The organizers predicted a crowd of more than 100,000 protesting Negroes, as we called black people then. Just the idea of such a horde seemed to scare the white residents of what was still a southern town.

There was no rush-hour traffic on Aug. 28, 1963; almost no one went to work. Downtown, the sidewalks were empty and businesses were closed. But at Union Station, the joint was jumping. So was the Greyhound bus station on New York Avenue. Scores of thousands — mostly black but about a third white — streamed out of trains and buses and began to march along the Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial.

I was a Post summer intern — a kid reporter on his first big story — and one of 60 staffers the paper deployed that day. This was a tiny fraction of the number of National Guardsmen and police on the streets but a veritable army for what was then still a provincial daily paper. Ben Gilbert, the imperious city editor, had spent weeks planning the coverage. With help from colleagues, he was about to make one of the biggest goofs of his long career.

I missed the first part of the march. I was sent to watch celebrities arrive at National Airport, where I attended a news conference by Marlon Brando, who wanted to be sure his presence was not misunderstood. Yes, Negroes were treated badly in the United States, Brando said, but “don’t forget the Indian problem.” As soon as the march was over, he promised, he would again be fighting to resolve “the Indian problem.”

I was then dispatched to the corner of Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Post reporters were stationed on every block of Constitution and throughout the Mall to cover any untoward incident. A sea of good-natured, well-dressed humanity paraded before me. The marchers carried signs but shouted no slogans. There was no hint of “trouble,” only the good news of a polite, orderly crowd.
But I was afraid of Gilbert, so I stayed at my post for several hours. Eventually I wandered toward the Lincoln Memorial, where the speeches had been delivered. It was a beautiful August afternoon, and everyone was having a fine time.

I was too late to hear the speeches but soon heard about them, particularly the address by John Lewis, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This is the same John Lewis we know today as an avuncular Georgia representative, a gentle though forceful agitator for the rights of African Americans and the poor. In 1963, Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department considered him a dangerous radical. So he got a disproportionate share of attention from reporters and officials.

The Post’s courtly civil rights reporter, Robert E. Lee Baker — he used Robert E. Baker as a less-provocative byline — reported: “Lewis had intended to scorch the Kennedy Administration and Congress and ‘cheap politicians’ in a highly emotional speech.” But, Baker wrote, “he toned it down.” No one got scorched.

The Post, however, got embarrassed. The main event that day was what we now call the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important speeches in U.S. history. But on the day it was given, The Post didn’t think so. We nearly failed to mention it at all.

We were poised and ready for a riot, for trouble, for unexpected events — but not for history to be made. Baker’s 1,300-word lead story, which began under a banner headline on the front page and summarized the events of the day, did not mention King’s name or his speech. It did note that the crowd easily exceeded 200,000, the biggest assemblage in Washington “within memory” — and they all remained “orderly.”

In that paper of Aug. 29, 1963, The Post published two dozen stories about the march. Every one missed the importance of King’s address. The words “I have a dream” appeared in only one, a wrap-up of the day’s rhetoric on Page A15 — in the fifth paragraph. We also printed brief excerpts from the speeches, but the three paragraphs chosen from King’s speech did not include “I have a dream.”
I’ve never seen anyone call us on this bit of journalistic malpractice. Perhaps this anniversary provides a good moment to cop a plea. We blew it.

I found this quite interesting and admirable, that someone at The Washington Post could admit this mistake.

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