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The Golden Year of Television News

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It seems difficult to believe in the age of all-news cable that television journalism was once informative rather than trivial, noble rather than divisive. But it was---and never more so than in the 1950s. The following, in abbreviated form but still lengthy, is from my new book Invasion of The Mind Snatchers: Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties. It is now available on Amazon.com and will be in stores early in October.

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It had been more than three years since Brown v. Board of Education, three years since Chief Justice Earl Warren had said that separate educational facilities "are inherently unequal"---and Little Rock Central High School was still not integrated. That was long enough, U.S. District Judge Ronald N. Davies decided, and ruled that nine black students be admitted for the term beginning in the fall of 1957. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had been expecting the ruling, but was dismayed nonetheless. It would, he knew, be the defining crisis of his political life. He would meet it up calling up 270 National Guardsmen and sending them to Central High. Their orders, according to one of them: "Keep the niggers out!"

Eight of the nine students admitted to Central were planning to journey together on the first day of classes, accompanied by a group of white and black ministers. But one student had not received word of this escort, a fifteen-year-old-girl, small for her age, named Elizabeth Eckford, and she showed up by herself, before the others. She got off one of the town's buses, took a deep breath, and willed her body toward the school's main entrance. She wore a pair of stylist bobby socks and new shoes that her mother had bought for the occasion. She looked down at them as she took her first few steps.

Initially, when she saw the guardsmen ahead of her, she found their presence reassuring; she thought they were there to make sure she and the other black students would be admitted without incident. But as she got closer, as she saw the expressions on their faces and the rigidity of their posture, she started to wonder whether they were there to usher her in or keep her out. She began to walk more slowly. Why were the guardsmen looking at her like that? Where were her fellow black students? She continued to approach, but her heart was thumping like a bass drum.

"Here she comes, now get ready!" one of the soldiers said, and then another stepped forward and thrust his rifle at her. Eckford stopped, froze; suddenly terrified, she did not know what to do. What she should not do, she was certain, was look to either side and acknowledge the people that had gathered to support the guardsmen. They gave no sign of closing in on her, but according to journalists on the scene, although the girl was not crying, she had begun to tremble.

Among the comments that Elizabeth Eckford heard in the next few minutes, and that were recorded by television and radio reporters and jotted down by newspapermen in their notebooks, were the following. Most of them had to be censored before they were broadcast or printed.

"Go home, you burr head!"

"Go home, you bastard of a black bitch!"

"Go home before you get hurt, nigger. Why don't you go back to the goddamn jungle!"

"No nigger bitch is going to get into our school!"

And, again and again, "Lynch her, lynch her!"

But as the rancor was being spewed at the young girl, as she listened to it alone and unprotected, not all the journalists who had gathered en masse that day, expecting just such a reception for Eckford, were situated were they wanted to be.

Television news cameras raced for position, then focused on Eckford and the hostile crowd around her. But the CBS cameraman had gotten into place too late to catch on film the contorted faces and the yelling and the Confederate flag waving and the "Nigger Go Home" signs. When [CBS correspondent Robert] Schakne realized he didn't have the footage, he did something that revealed the raw immaturity of the new medium of news gathering; he ordered up an artificial retake. He urged the crowd, which had fallen quieter, to demonstrated its anger again, this time for the cameras. "Yell again!" Schakne implored as his cameraman started filming.

In an act of unparalleled stupidity, the racists in fact yelled again. These people who had just taken a break from their cursing started up once more like actors doing a second take for their director, giving another display of the unreasoning barbarity that seemed to come so naturally to them.

After a few minutes, Eckford began to back up, slowly retreating to the bench at the bus stop, hoping she could get there safely and take the next bus home. Then she changed her mind. She did not want to wait for a bus, not in such a hostile environment. She got up and ran across the street to a drugstore to call a cab. But the owner saw her coming. He locked the door before she could get in. Eckford had no choice but to return to the bus stop and sit on the bench.

The crowd kept taunting her, threatening her, now beginning to move in her direction yet still giving her space. They seemed to want her gone more than they wanted to hurt her.

Schakne could not imagine what she as feeling, but wanted to know. He decided to talk to her. As Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff write in their history of race and the media, Schakne and his cameraman proceeded toward her and he held out his microphone and began by simply asking her name. "Eckford remained statue-like, her face unresponsive. 'Are you going to go to school here at Central High?' Eckford didn't move a musckle The sights and sounds of the young girl, frozen in fear and under assault by a boisterious, noisy mob, were sucked into the television camera without filter. Schakne's simple questions came off as a cruel inquisition of an innocent victim."

Possibly. But however the questions came off, Schakne sympthized with the girl and was merely seeking information for his story. The real cruelty was not the reporter's; it was the mob's and the cruelty was obvious that night when Schakne's report was the lead story on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.

It was also the lead story on ABC and NBC, the latter reported by future anchorman John Chancellor. Years later, Chancellor talked to author David Halberstam about that day.

[Chancellor] had watched Elizabeth Eckford's perilous journey with growing fear: one child, alone, entrapped by this mob. He was not sure she was going to make it out alive. He had wanted a story, a good story, but this was something beyond a good story, a potential tragedy so terrible that he had hoped it wasn't really happening. He was terribly frightened for her, frightened for himself, and frightened about what this told him about his country. . . . The mob gathered there in the street was uglier than anything he had ever seen before in his life. It was a mob of fellow Americans, people who under other conditions might be perfectly decent people, but there they were completely out of control. Chancellor wondered briefly where this young girl found her strength. It was almost as if he were praying:

Please stop all of this; please, there's got to be a better way. He watched in agony and captured it all for NBC.

Other reporters were capturing it for their own news organizations, day after day after day, as they poured into Little Rock in numbers that horrified the citizenry. The New York Times, which had initially assigned only one journalist to the story, flew in four more. Others newspapers and wire services also incrased their presence, doubling and trebling it. Three papers from London even sent reporters to the American South, as our national shame was reported on both sides of the Atlantic.

The TV networks also kept shipping in personnel, just as the governor or Arkansas kept sending in reinforcements for the National Guard. It is thought that in the month that the story dominated the news, there were between forty and a hundred journalists in Little Rock at any given time, telling the tale of Orval Faubus's resistance to an increasingly, and disted, television audience.

In that audience was President Dwight Eisenhower. He did not want to be. He did not want to get involved in the Central High School crisis, ambivalent on racial matters, and privately opposed to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, he was hoping for a solution without federal intervention. It was not to be.

Eisenhower told the television networks he wanted some time and they were prompt to comply. In his speech, with more than 60 percent of America's TV sets tuned in, a total of 100,000,000 viewers, the president announced that that the racially integrated 101st Airborne Division had been dispatched to Little Rock. In addition, the national Guardsmen who were already there and had been taking their orders from Faubus, were told they were now under federal jurisdiction, and would henceforth be doing what the president told them to do, not the governor. Overnight they were to switch allegiance. Overnight, as some of them believed, they were to turn their backs not only on their fellow Southerners but on themselves and everything they had grown up believing about the races. But they had their orders, their new orders; they were sworn to obey.

"On the 101st Airborne's first full day in Little Rock," it was reported, "news directors for the three networks got clearance to break into daytime programming virtually at will. CBS broke in eleven times, NBC eight times, ABC joined later in the day." What viewers saw was black children finally being admitted to Central High school, but still having to walk through a gauntlet of angry whites to do it. What viewers heard was the narration of journalists who, in the opinion of Roberts and Klibanoff, were committing the cardinal sin of losing their objectivity:

The television coverage was provocative and in some ways confusing. There were reporters and commentators, and the line between them wasn't always clear. Night after night, words, phrasings, tones, and inflections became a concern to some television critics and certainly to the segregationists. The networks had pledged earlier in the year to keep opinion out of newscasts. The pledge seemed to dissipate at Little Rock. The Atlanta Constitution's television critic wrote, where "all of the newscasters have become 'analysts' and 'commentators,' with a free rein to speak their own minds about what is right and what is wrong in the integration dispute."

It was true. Reporters in Little Rock sometimes let their opinions run freely, just as their emotions were running freely, their horror at what was happening to the black students having reached critical mass---and according to the canons of their profession, they should not have done so. They should have let the story speak for itself, Roberts and Klibanoff and other critics insisted, and in their way, they were right.

But in fact the story of Little Rock's Central High School did speak for itself. The overwhelming impressions left in the minds of viewers were not of the carefully chosen and often-opinionated words of reporters, but of the carelessly and spitefully uttered words of a good many citizens of Arkansas, not to mention their dreadful actions and the hateful expressions on their faces and the terror on the faces of Elizabeth Eckford and the other black children who could go to Central High School each day only because more than a hundred armed men cleared a path for them.

The behavior of reporters might not have been up to the strict ethical standards on which journalism prided itself, but it was the behavior of the people they covered that Americans and other people in other nations would remember, and that would prove so persuasively damning it was not a shameful exhibition by journalists; it was an unavoidable display of humanity. The shameful exhibition was provided by those upon whom the camera were focused and the microphones aimed.

The 101st Airborne departed from Little Rock at the end of November, 1957. The National Guardsmen remained until the end of the school year, and were in fact on duty the night of graduation, when Ernest Green, the only senior among the Little Rock nine, and as of this writing a successful investment banker in Washington, D.C., was spat upon as he marched out of the auditorium carrying his diploma, wearing his cap and gown.

Sander Vanocur, who had replaced John Chancellor on the Central High Story for NBC, witnessed the incident and reported it. By that time, NBC had long since become the Nigger Broadcasting Company to many, CBS the Coon Broadcasting System, and ABC had been christened the African Broadcasting System.

Vanocur became friends with Andrew Young, a black who would eventually become a Congressman, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter, and the mayor of Atlanta. In the fifties, though, he was an aide to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, after it was all over in Little Rock, the black students having secured their place at Central High and the military presence no longer needed, Young took Vanocur aside and said, "We used you, you know." By "we" he meant civil rights leaders; by "you" he meant journalists. Vanocur nodded. "I know," he said. He was not embarrassed.

Another civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis, acknowledged the role of reporters in a different manner. "If it hadn't been for the media," he insisted many years later, "the print media and television, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song."

Lewis was right. Ultimately, the courts and various government agencies and even the troops deployed so reluctantly by the Eisenhower administration did not matter nearly as much to the cause of racial equality as the NBC, CBS and ABC evening newcasts. The reports they telecast were something that most people had never seen before: moving pictures of man's inhumanity to man at its most bilious and crazed. The stories changed opinions. They changed behavior. They changed law.

Even among people who continued to believe in the inherent supremacy of the white race, there were now many who insisted that their beliefs were not license for the kind of mistreatment of blacks that they had witnessed night after night on TV.

In the mid-sixties, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the most ambitious civil rights program in our nation's history. He would not have been able to do so had it not been for the courageous television reporting in the years preceding. Robert Schakne might have staged an incident, although he was re-creating reality rather than constructing a fiction, and other reporters might have offered too many opinions from time to time, but these exceptions cannot obscure the fact that TV news has never done more of a service to the United States than it did in cover the civil rights movement in the fifties and beyond, laying the groundwork for the less racist, if still imperfect, society, in which we live today.

Fifty-three years have passed since the violence in Little Rock. Television news has not acted so nobly since.

The preceding is excerpted from Eric Burns's new book, Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties. In its prepublication review of the book, Library Journal said, "This well-researched book contains a nice combination of serious topics and humorous anecdotes . . . Reading a work by Burns is like having a delightful, intelligent conversation with a cultural expert. Highly recommended for TV history enthusiasts as well as general readers."

Burns's works include seven other cultural histories, two of which, The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, and The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco, have won the highest award in their category, being named the "Best of the Best" by the American Library Association. Burns is a former NBC News Correspondent, who, in that role, was named one of the top writers in the history of broadcast journalism and, more recently, the host of Fox News Channel's Fox News Watch.