Will Other Papers Follow ‘Herald-Leader’ on Civil Rights Analysis?

By: Charles Geraci

In the wake of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader’s recent revelation that the newspaper’s former managers severely downplayed the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, no other paper has announced plans for the same kind of self-appraisal, but at least one may be considering it.

Alan English, executive editor at The Times (Click for QuikCap) of Shreveport, La., said of the Herald-Leader’s recent articles, “What they did is an inspiration to editors to examine their civil rights coverage.” Though he notes his paper has many pressing issues to cover, he plans to bring up the idea at the next staff meeting. “I’m going to see what our staff thinks about examining our past and how it might help us do a better job now and in the future,” English said.

To see how a cross-section of Southern papers are responding to the highly-publicized Lexington article (it was covered on National Public Radio and the front page of The New York Times), E&P talked to editors at eight papers of varying size in four Southern states.

None of the papers surveyed have analyzed their civil rights coverage as the Herald-Leader did, but at least two have done so in a more limited way.

The Mobile (Ala.) Register has no plans to review its coverage from that era. “Our coverage of the civil rights movement was not as thorough as it should have been but I know of no deliberate efforts to downplay the movement,” said Executive Editor Michael Marshall. “There are no big skeletons rattling in our closet.”

Marshall said that, in general, the Register’s coverage at the time neglected many of the events in the African-American community. He may write a column about the matter but maintains, “I’m not going to apologize. I wasn’t connected with the paper 40 or 50 years ago.”

The executive editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., Linda Lightfoot, said that the newspaper did not ignore civil rights struggles. She cited a “long list of projects” now underway as one reason the paper has no plans to re-examine its civil rights coverage now.

Two of the papers surveyed have revisited their coverage of that time, but only in the context of current projects and not nearly as extensively as the Herald-Leader.

One of them, The American Press of Lake Charles, La., has reviewed some vintage stories for a weekly page of local nostalgia. “We find out regularly how incomplete our coverage is,” said Editor Brett Downer. “Because our coverage is lacking in certain areas, we have to look elsewhere.”

For instance, the paper published so few images of African Americans at the time, it has had to use photos from personal collections for current projects. He described past coverage as “a rough draft of history that was only 50% complete.”

But Downer said the paper has no plans to apologize because “what we’re doing now is probably harder.” It plans to focus on publishing photos of African Americans and their activities that were never published as well as identifying community leaders that were never saluted.

A political columnist for the paper, Jim Beam, now retired, began work there in 1961. He recalled the paper’s policy when lunchrooms were integrated: “I was told by an editor, ‘If there’s trouble, we’re going to report it. If not, the less said, the better.'” Beam thought that was a good idea but understands if other journalists do not. “We’ve had racial harmony [in Lake Charles], and I attribute that to the paper’s policies,” he said. “I don’t think our readers were denied essential news.”

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