“. . . the decisions
made at the Herald and the Leader hurt the civil rights
movement at the
time, irreparably damaged the historical record and caused
the newspapers' readers to miss out on one of the most important
stories of the 20th century.” – Lexington Herald-Leader,
July 4, 2004
“If a tree falls in the forest
and no one is there to hear it does it still make a sound?” This
philosophical conundrum has been debated for generations. The
question is an interesting one, but it can be applied to issues
other than trees. If a revolution took place and the press ignored
it, did it still happen?
The city of Lexington,
Kentucky, like so many other communities, experienced the fall
of an entire
forest in the 1950s and 1960s. The civil rights movement brought
wrenching changes to the entire nation. Lexington was not exempt.
Unfortunately, anyone depending on Lexington’s newspapers for
information would not have known to shout “timber” and get out
of the way when the redwoods began hitting the forest floor.
The city’s two daily newspapers, the
Herald and the Leader, worked hand in hand with respected pillars
of the community and decided to ignore the revolution. The press
took their orders from the powerful and didn’t report one of
the biggest news stories in American history. Lexington had demonstrations,
sit-ins and other protests, but the papers didn’t acknowledge
their complicity in telling a lie until earlier this month.
The Herald-Leader (the
two papers merged in the 1980s) recently apologized to readers
for not reporting
that the fair city of Lexington had a civil rights movement.
The white citizenry of Lexington decided that pretense was preferable
to the truth and chose not to point out the elephant in the living
room. “Good” white people like Fred Wachs, general manager and
publisher of both newspapers, said they wanted change, but didn’t
think that anyone demanding it was worthy of an expenditure of
"He didn't like the idea of some
of these rabble rousers coming in and causing trouble," Fred
Wachs Jr. said of his father, who died in 1974. "He tried
to keep that off the pages. But he supported school desegregation,
and they wanted it done without any problems, and I don't think
we had any problems here."
The godfathers of Lexington told people
where they could and could not live, and could and could not
work, and could and could not go to school and yet were not labeled
rabble rousers. That honor fell on those who risked death, injury
and loss of livelihood to demand a just society.
As for problems, it is certainly true
that Lexington had problems. Audrey
Ross Grevious was one of the movement organizers in Lexington.
During a sit-in at a lunch counter the manager swung a chain
barrier into her legs for several hours, causing her pain that
continues until this day. Audrey Ross Grevious certainly had
problems in Lexington.
It is doubtful that anyone
was fooled by the news white-out. Black people certainly knew
what was going
on. They were the ones taking the action. Their white neighbors
also knew that something had changed. People don’t refrain from
talking about something because the newspapers are silent. They
knew that protests were taking place, even if their leaders didn’t
want to bother their pretty little heads about it.
Of course there was another very simple
reason to deny the existence of the movement in Lexington and
other cities. The lack of coverage discouraged activism. Many
more people would have been galvanized by the courage of Audrey
Ross Grevious and thousands of others. Calvert
McCann was a young man who photographed the events in Lexington.
He says that if the revolution had been televised or even reported
in the paper, “I think there may have been more people would
have joined, and more interest in the movement …”
It is easy to pass judgment
against the pillars of the segregationist Lexington community
is more difficult to ask about the present day elite corporate
media in the North. Thirty years after a newspaper brought down
a corrupt presidency, the New York Times recently apologized
for not living up to journalistic standards when it went along
with the Bush administration propaganda that Saddam Hussein had
stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The flimsy mea
culpa went along these lines. “We did not listen carefully
to the people who disagreed with us.” It would have been a
lot better if powerful opinion makers like the Times had given
legitimacy to opposing points of view before 12,000 Iraqis
and 800 American soldiers were killed. July must be the official “better
late than never” month for national newspapers.
The New York Times today cannot claim
to be superior to local papers published in Lexington, Kentucky
forty years ago. The Times claimed that anti-war rallies had
10,000 marchers when they actually had 200,000 and
the Times ignored the very existence of the lesser known and/or
politically inconvenient candidates
in presidential election debates.
Everyone knows that we
everything that we read, and not just because the information
may be faulty. We must also assume that important truths are
left out of news coverage. The press are embedded with the powerful,
whether in Kentucky or New York, and they continue to cause irreparable
damage to the historical record.