Tue. Nov 13th, 2018

Race, Rebellion and Reporting: The Kerner Commission at 50

 

“Can you hear me? … I’m Screaming from way down here below!” Hugh Masekela

 

I. INTRODUCTION

“Chief Blame for Riots Put on White Racism,” read the first first published headline 50 years ago today about the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and suggests why the story was largely the result of a leak and the study itself largely ignored by the man who initially called it into being.  Despite being his desire less than a year earlier, first looks at the commission’s publication had president Lyndon Baines Johnson shook to his political core and had he had his way the report would have never been seen or heard from at all. 

 

Commonly known by its eponym, the Kerner Commission or Kerner Report or simply Kerner, named after appointed head Otto Kerner Governor of Illinois, it said mostly all the president had not wanted it to.  Its conclusions, in fact, would likely not be welcomed by any president, even the most popular, before or since.  First, the report condemned the country’s history of structural racism and economic inequality.  Secondly, called into being to assess the origins of Black anger and “riots,” the report concluded that there would likely be more unrest, in part due to embedded public policy, concepts of anti-Black policing and a media/press environment which had locked out honest discussion of Black life.  And thirdly, perhaps most damning of all, the report argued that the liberal social programs, like the Great Society variety proposed by Johnson, would be insufficient in addressing problems which themselves spoke to the very nature of the state itself.

The report’s conclusions were less revelatory than un-welcomed.  The Johnson administration – and of course those suffering them – was well aware of existing societal inequalities but wanted a report that would blame every and anything else for the uprisings of recent years, most notably those of Newark, N.J. and Detroit, M.I. during the summer of 1967.  But even without a federal budget or blue-ribbon panels of commissioned experts and political leaders many, including Malcolm X, had for years been correctly predicting, for precisely the same reasons, that there would be more righteous turmoil, turmoil caused by the state itself and with which it, as a whole, would have to deal:

There will be more violence than ever this year [1964]… White people will be shocked when they discover that the passive little Negro they had known turns out to be a roaring lion. The whites had better under­stand this while there is still time. The Negroes at the mass level are ready to act. It is dangerous to deceive the white people into believing that all is well…

… And a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will joint in with anyone—don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth. Thank you. 

Johnson, though aware of the underlying social and economic conditions facing African America, wanted the resulting “riots” of 1967, indeed all social unrest, to be blamed by the report on surviving revolutionaries, or on other “outside radical agitators,” who, like Malcolm, had reached similar conclusions. When told this would likely not be supported by evidence Johnson encouraged that no one:

… foreclose the conspiracy theory now…. Keep that door open…. Even though some of you will not agree with me, I have a very deep feeling that there is more to that than we see at the moment.

To assure the report would reach his preferred conclusions Johnson did his best to seat the commission with those already clear they were “Johnson” men whose penises would be “cut off” with a “pocketknife” were they to not produce preferred results.  Along with Kerner were several others thought initially sufficiently malleable by Johnson to produce politically valuable sound research.  But after teams of social scientists were compiled and dispersed nationally to conduct surveys of community members, journalists, police officers, conduct research of media reports and study the societal conditions all in order to investigate the origins of the “riots,” and after internal turmoil, struggles with personal principle and the truth, including work conducted in secrecy, the commission was compelled by its own work to publish findings it knew would not go down easily.  While some may have found confusion in the allusion to a future reality the (in)famous line which has most followed the report in the decades since the statement did hit squarely upon what Johnson and his administration had most wanted to avoid and assured their eventual stance against it:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, – separate and unequal.

And, again, far worse still, and worth quoting at some length, is what the report published in direct conversation with, and opposition to, Johnson’s proposed policy response to his national crisis.  Education and training programs would not adequately provide gap closures to centuries-old institutional blockages to genuine full employment, wealth redistribution and a “national will” to change.  The “… report was damning about the failure of Great Society programs, which they dismissed as tokenism that did not tamper enough with the ‘white power structure’ to have an impact on these problems.”  As the Commission reported:

We believe that the present policies choice would lead to a larger number of violent incidents of the kind that have stimulated recent major disorders.

First, it does nothing to raise the hopes, absorb the energies, or constructively challenge the talents of the rapidly growing number of young Negro men in central cities. The proportion of unemployed or underemployed among them will remain very high. These young men have contributed disproportionately to crime and violence in cities in the past, and there is danger, obviously, that they will continue to do so.

Second, under these conditions, a rising proportion of Negroes in disadvantaged city areas might come to look upon the deprivation and segregation they suffer as proper justification for violent protest or for extending support to now isolated extremists who advocate civil disruption by guerrilla tactics. More incidents would not necessarily mean more or worse riots. For the near future, there is substantial likelihood that even an increased number of incidents could be controlled before becoming major disorders, if society undertakes to improve police and National Guard forces so that they can respond to potential disorders with more prompt and disciplined use of force. In fact, the likelihood of incidents mushrooming into major disorders would be only slightly higher in the near future under the present policies choice than under the other two possible choices. For no new policies or programs could possibly alter basic ghetto conditions immediately. And the announcement of new programs under the other choices would immediately generate new expectations. Expectations inevitably increase faster than performance. In the short run, they might even increase the level of frustration.

In the long run, however, the present policies choice risks a seriously greater probability of major disorders, worse, possibly, than those already experienced.

If the Negro population as a whole developed even stronger feelings of being wrongly “penned in” and discriminated against, many of its members might come to support not only riots, but the rebellion now being preached by only a handful. Large-scale violence, followed by white retaliation could follow. This spiral could quite conceivably lead to a kind of urban apartheid with semi-martial law in many major cities, enforced residence of Negroes in segregated areas, and a drastic reduction in personal freedom for all Americans, particularly Negroes.

The same distinction is applicable to the cost of the present policies choice. In the short run, its costs— at least its direct cash outlays— would be far less than for the other choices.

Social and economic programs likely to have significant lasting effect would require very substantial annual appropriations for many years. Their cost would far exceed the direct losses sustained in recent civil disorders. Property damage in all the disorders we investigated, including Detroit and Newark, totaled less than $100 million.

But it would be a tragic mistake to view the present policies choice as cheap. Damage figures measure only a small part of the costs of civil disorder. They cannot measure the costs in terms of the lives lost, injuries suffered, minds and attitudes closed and frozen in prejudice, or the hidden costs of the profound disruption of entire cities.

Ultimately, moreover, the economic and social costs of the present policies choice will far surpass the cost of the alternatives. The rising concentration of impoverished Negroes and other minorities within the urban ghettos will constantly expand public expenditures for welfare, law enforcement, unemployment, and other existing programs without arresting the decay of older city neighborhoods and the breeding of frustration and discontent. But the most significant item on the balance of accounts will remain largely invisible and incalculable— the toll in human values taken by continued poverty, segregation, and inequality of opportunity.

While an existing political establishment may have found the Report earth-shattering there were those who saw it was un-welcomed for not going far enough:

There were likewise some left-wing radicals who felt that the report did not go far enough: “It threatens no real, commanding interests. It demands, by implication or explication, no real shifts in the way power and wealth are apportioned among classes.” They felt that the report should have called for the entire power structure of the United States to be overthrown and done more to directly attack the promise of postwar liberal programs.  Nor had the report discussed the budgetary impact of Vietnam.

As Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards, for one example, has argued, the report tended to also paint Black “rage as deviant” while ignoring “the trajectory of White rage” and failed to properly address societal differences in response to “riots” where victims and damage occurred in only Black communities as opposed to those that affected ones that were White.  In fact, not long after it was said that George Jackson‘s incendiary Soledad Brother (1970) presented “… evidence of the degradation of Black existence unexplored by the Kerner Commission and other federal investigating bodies.”  It is also worthy of noting that Jackson too extended the advanced notice given earlier by Malcolm X, saying in Soledad…  

Some people are going to get killed out of this situation that is growing. That is not a warning (or wishful thinking). I see it as an “unavoidable consequence” of placing and leaving control of our lives in the hands of men like Reagan [then Governor of California]… The holds are fast being broken. Men who read Lenin, Fanon, and Che don’t riot, “they mass,” “they rage,” they dig graves.

It was one thing for Johnson’s “radical agitators” to be dismissive but quite another for those once assumed to be among acceptable leadership.  Adding to Johnson’s frustrations with a report he initially called for but which ultimately repudiated much of his own platform and that of his political class was not just the report’s seeming agreement with the predictions of Black radicals like Malcolm X but that it was immediately taken up as a “challenge” by once-loved national heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  And though King had himself undergone his own form of post-1963 radicalizing he was not alone among those on the Left who saw the shortcomings of words backed by nothing.

On April 2, 1968, Dr. King and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights published their own statement both in response to Kerner’s call “to produce quick and visible progress,” and also to challenge a president of which King had already been highly critical.  In fact, Kerner highlighted for King what he had already made painstakingly clear when noting the “cut-rate… timidity” of Johnson’s poverty programs – which saw little in comparison to the billions spent for war – were part of the assemblage of hypocrisies leading many to then call out for “Black Power,” the response to a profound:

disappointment with a federal administration that seems to be more concerned about winning an ill-considered war in Vietnam than about winning the war against poverty here at home (2).

The April 2 Leadership statement took Kerner’s words to heart:

When the Kerner commission declares “It is time now to end destruction and violence, not only in the streets of the ghetto but in the lives of people” it presents a challenge to the entire nation.  It is a challenge that we in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights willingly accept.

The alternatives before the country, as the Report presents them, have never been so stark.

Either we adopt and implement a national policy that fosters racial and economic integration at every level of American life, or we shall suffer the awful consequences foreshadowed in the Report’s basic conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – – separate and unequal.

Two days later, and five weeks after the Report’s publication, having assessed him as early as 1963 as the “most dangerous Negro of the future of this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security…” and after deploying the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) for the purposes of surveillance and engaging in tactics to “neutralize” him as an effective leader and after national media turned him from “Man of the Year” candidate in 1965 to headlines in 1968 describing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “threat” to national security, he was assassinated and, like much of the country, Baltimore would erupt in its largest uprising.  Predictably, the long uncorrected histories of what King called this country’s “triplets of evil” of militarism, capitalism and anti-Blackness resulted in equally predictable defenses of such by the police leading to, again, an equally predictable response by the people so afflicted.  And, once more in 2015, the prescience of Kerner was apparent as were its previously ignored conclusions and prescribed solutions.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has said that Kerner was the “high point” of state recognition of “white racism” and “material” exclusion as “the roots of Black oppression.”  What then does it say that the country’s high watermark was met with little substance and ultimately rejection from those most capable of implementing prescribed solutions to its own researched findings? 50 years later it is worth revisiting some of what Kerner said then nationally, look again some at what occurred in Baltimore in 2015 as part of an assessment of “where we are now,” and to conclude with brief mention of a developing project at Morgan State University in Baltimore, itself a potential response to an aspect of Kerner mostly forgotten and also never developed. 

Our interests here are limited mostly to the discussions within the Kerner report of the press, to a lesser extent the police, but also, and specifically, the under-valued call by the the commission, one as ignored as its others, that there be developed an Institute for Urban Communication Research to bring about an organized, academic professionalism to the study of race and media.  Here too there remains an unheralded call of the commission one i am currently in the process of addressing in a mandate set before me this year by Morgan State University and the Institute for Urban Research to lay the groundwork for the development of a Race and Media Research Center (RAM-RC).


“Every rebellion in Black history has been in response to police violence. Every single one.  There are no exceptions.”  Kwame Ture

“… people should have listened to the Kerner Commission in the first place, instead of launching the war on drugs and the war on crime…” – Peter B. Levy

 

II. MEDIA AND REBELLION: KERNER, THE PRESS, THE POLICE AND BALTIMORE

 

The commission was first called for by then president Lyndon Johnson on Thursday July 27, 1967 in response to that month’s multiple “riots” in Newark, NJ and Detroit, MI. Its conclusions, however, despite Johnson’s attempts to “… stack[sic] the commission with established political figures who were moderate and committed to the existing economic and political system,” had indeed become for him what an advisor to the President feared, “… a political Frankenstein’s monster and… that Lyndon Johnson would sour on his hasty creation.”  In fact, upon its publication the following year, its famous headline conclusion and that the report was seen as a “mandate” which called for more than government policy but a “change in national will,” led Johnson in the end to refuse even delivery of the report to the White House.

Kerner’s macrocosmic national assessment of the inequality faced by Black people we summarized above and is not our immediate focus here.  However, it should be noted, as we have done for some time, that the United for a Fair Economy group have published annual reports since 2004 describing in stark detail the material devolution suffered by Black America since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968.  Titled the State of the Dream reports they mostly track what King called himself the evolving “nightmare” of a worsening reality in which nearly all material indicators by which one would honestly determine the lived experience of a people continues to decline (or are ‘improving” at rates so slow as to make the word meaningless).  Despite popular image and crisis level amounts of misleading punditry Black people in the United States are better considered an internal colony experiencing so-called “Third World” conditions with combat level stress than as equal and welcomed citizens.

Specific to Baltimore, the hyper-segregation, described in the report as a kind of futuristic “apartheid,” with its accompanying degrees of poverty and police violence, has indeed been realized.  Some of this we covered recently in our second episode of Academics In Cars with Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University in which he discussed the “Category 5,” or highest degree, segregation existing today in Baltimore.  Upward mobility has been determined to simply not exist and the landscape of abandoned buildings which some mistakenly assumed occurred only with the uprising in 2015 have been there for decades.

In fact, Kerner has been described as the man who “foresaw” Baltimore.  That is, while Kerner was exposing with detail the socio-economic bases for inequality and unrest, the political establishment, including Johnson, chose ”wars” on poverty and crime, which mostly translate into “wars” against the Black and poor, and then ultimately, the preference was profiting from a 13th amendment, legalized enslavement or mass incarceration rather than redistribution of wealth and benefits. Whereas Kerner called for, “a commitment to national action – compassionate, massive and sustained…” and, “From every American… new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will…” the report’s suggestions were tossed out in favor of criminalizing the poor and, in particular, those who would rebel against that poverty:

In response to the urban unrest of the 1960s, politicians often obscured the line between street violence and civil rights protest and ominously conjured the specter of black criminality. Scholars often trace the new politics of crime to Richard Nixon’s southern strategy in the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon’s support for law and order in a time of black protest sent a veiled invitation to white voters in the South who were disaffected by President Johnson’s support for civil rights.

And meanwhile, in the intervening years between the release of the Report and the 2015 uprising Baltimore saw the predictable onward decline of conditions and national response:

While elected officials talked tough on crime, economic catastrophe unfolded in American cities. Urban employment in manufacturing declined. When the jobs left, people followed often leaving behind neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. In Baltimore from 1978 to 2014, the population dropped from 815,000 to 620,000. The city lost 90,000 jobs. Four years after the 2008 recession, a third of the city’s population, mostly African American, was on food stamps.

By 2015 policing, another of the Commission’s concerns, of course relevant here too, continued unabated and unaltered.  Criminalizing blackness and poverty for the national preference for “wars” against crime and drugs meant the historical origins of policing – southern enslavement and northern restriction of labor – would lead to what is still an on-going crisis of policing Black people.  As it was in 1968, where for the Commission, no “institution received more scrutiny than the police. The rioting had shown without any doubt that law enforcement had become a problem in race relations” it would remain in 2015 where, also as the Commission said 50 years earlier, “… that systematic police violence against African Americans was at the heart of the riots of this period, more so than almost any other issue” and finally that:

The report stressed that law enforcement officers were not “merely a ‘spark factor.’ To some Negroes, policemen have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.

In its chapter on the press, The News Media and the Disorders, the commission made it clear that the media are but one societal institution and that their performance during the “riot” itself was but one aspect of what needed to be considered.  “Our analysis,” the Report said, had to go beyond just how media performed in the moment but that they had to consider:

…treatment by the media of the Negro ghettos, community relations, racial attitudes, urban and rural poverty— day by day and month by month, year in and year out.

And as such the commission concluded that:

    1. “… despite instances of sensationalism, inaccuracies, and distortions, newspapers, radio, and television, on the whole, made a real effort to give a balanced, factual account of the 1967 disorders.”
    2. “… despite this effort, the portrayal of the violence that occurred last summer failed to reflect accurately its scale and character. The overall effect was, we believe, an exaggeration of both mood and event.”
    3. “… ultimately most important, we believe that the media have thus far failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and the underlying problems of race relations.”

“The Kerner Report was released just five weeks before the 1968 Baltimore uprising…” – City Lab

III. KERNER, FREDDIE GRAY AND THE “PURGE”

Reflecting on Kerner while working in a city that continues to deal with the unchanged conditions which precipitated its most recent uprisings in 2015 and sees (lives) endlessly unfolding stories of police misconduct (if ever there was a euphemism…) it is impossible to ignore the similarities in much of the press behavior during the “riots” of 2015 and those 50 years earlier.  This is a point not lost on honest observers and those aware of Kerner’s history. 

We also spoke with Dr. Brown at length regarding his involvement with press coverage of and activist protests against the police violence which precipitated the uprising in 2015 and, there too, we find a series of concerning continuities and hold-overs 50 years out from Kerner.  Specifically, Brown, like journalist Adam Johnson with whom we also again spoke, raised concerns over how quickly the Baltimore Sun, in particular, popularly spread – without attribution – rumors of Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang threats against police and a “purge” to be carried out by youngsters after school (some may be reminded of the “wildling” charges against the Black and Brown youth of New York City during the infamous “Central Park Jogger” case).    

Kerner’s first summarized point that, “… despite instances of sensationalism, inaccuracies, and distortions, newspapers, radio, and television, on the whole, made a real effort to give a balanced, factual account of the 1967 disorders” is as good as any place to start.  The Baltimore Sun and City Paper both received press awards for their coverage of the “riots” in 2015.  Suffice it, for now, to say that this suggests appropriate recognition for their “real effort to give a balance and factual account” of what happened in 2015. 

However, referencing Kerner, it was the Black press who were first and loudest to point out the “riots” of 2015 were born of a national policy rejection of 50 years that, as the report predicted, led to the tension and ultimately the outburst:

So just to be clear on this, the riots didn’t start yesterday. Some media sources and observers would suggest that the riots in Baltimore started on 4/27/2015 around noon.  However taking a more critical look it’s clear the riot in Baltimore had its genesis much earlier than yesterday.

In fact, as pointed out by watchdog group Media Matters, mainstream media, like the Sun, are generally unlikely (only 34 out of 994 instances researched) to include a systemic focus at all in their reporting on “race and racism.” 

Further, as Media Matters quite excellently point out, the Sun largely fell into the trap assessed and warned against by Kerner, the Commission writing then about coverage “of the violence that occurred…” which “failed to reflect accurately its scale and character. The overall effect was, we believe, an exaggeration of both mood and event.”  In their piece titled “This 1968 Report Highlights Exactly Why Reporting On Race Is Still A Disaster: Fifty Years Later, The ‘White Perspective’ Still Dominates Media Coverage Of Race, Racism, And Violence” Media Matters use the framework established by Kerner to demonstrate how each of the Report’s concerns 50 years earlier were prevalent in Baltimore’s leading historical media arm the Sun.  Further, they report:

Newsrooms covering Baltimore and Ferguson also disseminated misinformation that often originated from local city and police department officials. On April 27, 2015, The Baltimore Sun reported that a mass police presence had been pre-emptively convened near a Baltimore mall because of a “flier that circulated widely” among students online advocating a “purge,” referencing the 2013 movie The Purge that dramatized a night of lawlessness and anarchy.

The Baltimore Sun reported the “purge” claim April 27, 2015, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, which along with later dismissed claims of Black Guerrilla Family plans to attack police officers and even a report that students in local schools were being held in assembly formation due to threats against them by unknown “White supremacists,” all led both to increased levels of intensity which could predictably escalate and, as was the case, provide the police and media with a necessary narrative shift from police brutality to condemnation of “violent” protests.  In what offers great potential for future research (or as supplement to existing research) more can be done to demonstrate this point where, for instance, of the more than 150 Baltimore Sun articles surveyed for this article between January 1, 2015 and April 27, 2015 the predominance of the reporting – where it applied to the actual behavior or relationship of the police and Black citizens – was focussed on issues of “misconduct” “abuse” or “violence,” including reports of city payouts to victims of police violence.  In the weeks immediately following the “riots,” much like Kerner said 50 years ago, reporting turned away from institutional police violence to concerns over keeping the peace and protesters as “violent,” “hooligans,” and “thugs.”

Johnson wasn’t alone.  We had asked Baltimore activist Dominque Stevenson, who lives across the street from Mondawmin Mall, what she bore witness to and she both confirmed what Johnson’s reporting told him but added also another under-reported story that local students had been further confused and terrorized by threats against their lives by unknown “white supremacists.” 

 

It is worth noting also that when we spoke with Adam Johnson, who was then covering the uprisings in Baltimore for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), he reiterated much of what he reported initially but added that he and a team he had put together to investigate the particular claims of the “purge” ran into more obstacles than their time allowed and to this day has never been able to determine where those claims came from.  He had previously noted the importance of this press omission being that the claim that gave justification to a mass police mobilization which initiated the class with youngsters:

Turns out the teen social media “purge” may have been more a police and media creation than an actual threat… [and] The murkiness and lack of identified primary source strips the story of context and, in doing so, creates a perception of actual danger that the proffered evidence doesn’t substantiate. Instead, our biases are allowed to provide confirmation: Each time the story is told, assumptions about a certain class of high schooler (*cough* black *cough*) fill in the blanks, and the reader is ultimately left with the impression that a torrent of anarchist black youths were about to descend on Mondawmin Mall—thus justifying the police’s martial response.

Johnson would also note that, as Mother Jones would add, witnesses they spoke to were concerned with the speed and ferocity the police had mobilized that day and even raise questions as to the true origins of the “riots” saying, both that, the “riots didn’t start the way you think,” and that, “those kids were set up.” 

But follow-up reports in Mother Jones and Gawker yesterday would further expose the “purge” fraud. As Meg Gibson, a Baltimore City school teacher at Belmont Elementary School, said in a Facebook conversation with Gawker (4/28/15):

“I was at a stoplight in front of Frederick Douglass High School and directly across from Mondawmin Mall. It was exactly 3 p.m. The mall was on lockdown. There were police helicopters flying overhead. The riot police were already at the bus stop on the other side of the mall, turning buses that transport the students away, not allowing students to board. They were waiting for the kids. As I sat at the intersection of Gwynns Falls, I saw several police cars arriving at the scene. I saw the armored police vehicle arrive. Those kids were set up, they were treated like criminals before the first brick was thrown.

In a piece headlined “Eyewitnesses: The Baltimore Riots Didn’t Start the Way You Think,” Mother Jones (4/28/15) would provide further context, interviewing several of the parents and teachers that were there: After Baltimore police and a crowd of teens clashed near the Mondawmin Mall in northwest Baltimore on Monday afternoon, news reports described the violence as a riot triggered by kids who had been itching for a fight all day. But in interviews with Mother Jones and other media outlets, teachers and parents maintain that police actions inflamed a tense-but-stable situation…. Said one Douglass High School teacher: “When school was winding down, many students were leaving early with their parents or of their own accord.” Those who didn’t depart early, she says, were stranded. Many of the students still at school at that point, she notes, wanted to get out of the area and avoid any Purge-like violence. Some were requesting rides home from teachers. But by now, it was difficult to leave the neighborhood. “I rode with another teacher home,” this teacher recalls, “and we had to route our travel around the police in riot gear blocking the road… The majority of my students thought what was going to happen was stupid or were frightened at the idea.

 


“Our own investigations have shown us that academic work on the impact of the media on race relations, its role in shaping attitudes, and the effects of the choices it makes on people’s behavior, is in a rudimentary stage.” – Kerner Commission

IV: INSTITUTE OF URBAN COMMUNICATIONS: THE RACE AND MEDIA RESEARCH CENTER (RAM-RC)

 The Commission believes that some of these problems could be resolved if there were a central organization to develop, gather, and distribute talent, resources, and information and to keep the work of the press in this field under review. For this reason, the Commission proposes the establishment of an Institute of Urban Communications on a private, nonprofit basis. The Institute would have neither governmental ties nor governmental authority. Its board would consist in substantial part of professional journalists and, for the rest, of distinguished public figures. The staff would be made up of journalists and students of the profession. Funding would be sought initially from private foundations. Ultimately, it may be hoped, financial support would be forthcoming from within the profession.

Focussed on 1) Training, 2) Recruitment, 3) Police-Press Relations, 4) Review of Media Performance on Riots and Racial Issues, 5) An Urban Affairs Service, 6) Continuing Research:

Our own investigations have shown us that academic work on the impact of the media on race relations, its role in shaping attitudes, and the effects of the choices it makes on people’s behavior, is in a rudimentary stage. The Commission’s content analysis is the first study of its type of contemporary riot coverage, and it is extremely limited in scope.  A whole range of questions needs intensive, scholarly exploration, and indeed the development of new modes of research and analysis. The Institute should undertake many of these important projects under its own auspices and could stimulate others in the academic community to further research.

For all the deserved attention given Kerner almost none goes to the part of its suggested set of solutions that was its call for more organized academic research on the intersections of race and media.  Clearly much has changed in this area over the last 50 years and there do indeed exist centers and organizations whose work does engage the cross-sections of these topic areas.  However, while there may be more research now there has also been an explosion over that same time of all kinds of media and media technology, their impact, reach, use and concentrations of ownership, not even to mention, shifting regulations, laws and policies all governing who can do what with what and with what expectation (or lack thereof) of privacy.  And, as we have even just briefly surveyed here, there remains a tremendous amount of work left to do.

It then is more than opportune, indeed crucial, that we now have been challenged to develop the Race and Media Research Center (RAM-RC) at Morgan State University, a Historically Black College and University, in Baltimore and housed within the Institute for Urban Research directed by Dr. Raymond Winbush.  There remain an infinite number of research possibilities and needs, including, for one example, updating existing research into the city’s media ecology which continues its own shifts and not even too long ago surprised some when it was exposed just how interconnected and limited that environment actually is.  According to media scholar Robert McChesney:

A study that encapsulated the crisis [in corporate controlled media]. was released by the Pew Center for the People and the Press in 2010. It examined in exhaustive detail the “media ecology” of the city of Baltimore for one week in 2009.29 The object was to determine how, in this changing media moment, “original” news stories were being generated, and by whom. They tracked old media and new, newspapers, radio, television, websites, blogs, even Twitter “tweets” from the police department. What did they find? The first conclusion from the researchers was an unsettling one: Despite the seeming proliferation of media, the researchers observed that “much of the ‘news’ people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of ten stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information.” And where did the ‘original’ reporting come from? More than 95 percent of original news stories were still generated by old media, particularly the Baltimore Sun newspaper. In other words, a great many of the much-heralded online sites – even some that proudly labeled themselves as “news” operations – simply disseminated what was being produced by traditional old media.

It gets worse: The Sun’s production of original news stories was itself down more than 30 percent from ten years ago and down a whopping 73 percent from twenty years ago. The bottom line is this: Old media outlets are downsizing and abandoning journalism and new media are not even beginning to fill the void.

We saw this play out in 2015 as “new” media were simply regurgitating “old” media which had itself, in part due in part to its own precipitous drop in original reporting, become even more hampered than traditionally had been the case in covering accurately its own backyard.  But we’ve still yet to fully capture or update the various ways in which various segments of the city use various media and to what varying impact.  And nationally there remain many of the same unresolved issues conjured by discussion of Kerner with similar gaps in reporting, interpretation and analyses.  The point is made well by Linn Washington, veteran award-winning  journalist and journalism professor, when noting competing similarities in press functionality between then and now.  Of our current moment he says:

Findings in the 1968 Kerner Commission report faulted failures by America’s white news media to provide pertinent facts and context regarding the realities of ‘being black.’ Decades after the release of that report those failures remain evident with a prime example being news coverage of the 2015 protests against police brutality by pro-football star Colin Kaepernick, then a player for the San Francisco 49ers team.

While Kaepernick coverage did reference police brutality spawned riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, that coverage, inexplicably, failed to provide any facts about present [and past] police brutality in San Francisco. Contextualized coverage about abusive and racist policing in San Francisco would have demonstrated that the concerns driving Kaepernick’s protest were provable facts not mere personal perception. It is significant to note that the Black Press in San Francisco had provided such pertinent facts and context about that city’s abusive policing since the 1960s.

It cannot be denied that, as professor Thomas Hrach says, author of The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission Changed Media Coverage of Black America, Kerner did serve as a “catalyst to promote the hiring of blacks in American newsrooms…” but, as Washington speaks to, difference aside, there are institutional realities which remain and which cry out for more critical, organized and sustained research.  For even to the extent that there has been any shift in employment of world majority populations there has been little advance in terms of ownership.  According to Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres we live in a “de facto apartheid media system:”

Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans collectively comprised 33 percent of the US population in 2005, yet virtually none of the country’s daily newspapers, only 7.7 percent of its commercial radio stations, and 3.2 percent of commercial television stations were owned by minority businesspeople, and recent studies indicate such ownership is decreasing even more.

But even when it comes to employment, veteran journalist and editor of Journal-isms Richard Prince, explained recently at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kerner convened at American University by Dr. Sherri Williams, that he is aware both of just how little has changed in hiring practices and to what extent what change there has been has been mitigated by broader shifts in the economy and industry:

Make no mistake. 50 years later, there are far more African Americans in the news business than there were in 1968. When I entered the business, we had perhaps one or two, if that, per newsroom. And now we have also Latinos, Asian Americans and a sprinkling of Native Americans. But even those in the news business admit the progress has been disappointing.  Mizell Stewart III, a USA Today Network executive who last year was president of the American Society of News Editors, wrote members then, “In my more pessimistic moments, I believe our industry has made little progress since 1968. That is not because of a willful disregard for diversity; on the CONTRARY, countless programs and initiatives are in place with the goal of bringing persons of color and women INTO the industry, and women and persons of color occupy top leadership positions in media organizations of ALL stripes. The lack of progress is palpable because the continuing transformation of media business models has led to dramatic reductions in newsroom employment, particularly at local newspapers. In many legacy news organizations, moving the needle on staff diversity took a back seat to the survival of the enterprise. . . .”  What those organizations fail to take into account is our nation’s changing demographics. We are becoming a majority-minority nation, and those are our customers.  Mizell offered one explanation. “Others say the lack of progress is because the WILL just isn’t there.”

There also remain many important questions of “alternative” media relationships and historic critiques of those spaces mimicking dominant media modes of journalistic and racial operation or issues of phenotypic diversity surreptitiously fronting for insidiously entrenched monochromatic politics.  All of this and so much more encourage further critically engaged research.  This remains another challenge of Kerner and one, as King’s Leadership Conference was then, we are anxious to accept.  To paraphrase a modern classic, we’ve only Just Begun.

 


NOTES:

  1. Unless otherwise indicated above by a link or other stated reference all quotes related to the history or content of the Kerner Commission report are taken from: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The Kerner Report (The James Madison Library in American Politics) (p. xxxii). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Martin Luther King Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (p. xv). Kindle Edition.

6 thoughts on “Race, Rebellion and Reporting: The Kerner Commission at 50

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