Tuesday, July 13

40 Years Later, Civil Rights Makes Page One

Deep into a speech on journalism ethics in May, John S. Carroll, now the editor of The Los Angeles Times, told University of Oregon students about his days as editor of The Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., where the running gag among newsroom staff members was that they should print the following 'clarification':
'It has come to the editor's attention that The Herald neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.'

When The Herald-Leader's enterprise editor, John Voskuhl, read Mr. Carroll's speech online a few days later, a light bulb went off in his head and he fired off an e-mail message to the paper's new editor asking for permission pick up the gauntlet. On July 4, readers of The Herald-Leader saw the results of the paper's inquiry: a front-page exposé, two sidebar articles and a full page of previously unpublished black-and-white photographs describing how the newspapers - The Herald in the morning and The Leader in the afternoon - virtually ignored the civil rights movement in Lexington. Throughout the late 1950's and early 1960's, protesters conducted peaceful weekly sit-ins at the city's racially segregated lunch counters, hotels and theaters. But under orders from their top executives, the newspaper investigation found, both The Herald and The Leader buried coverage of the protests, when they covered them at all.

The poor coverage was not the result of mistakes or oversights, The Herald-Leader concluded, but a conscious strategy by the papers' former managers 'to play down the movement' in the hopes that it would wither away. 'That stance was not unusual among newspapers across the South,' the article, written by Linda Blackford and Linda Minch, said. 'But from today's perspective, many experts agree that 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 newspaper's readers to miss out on one of the most important stories of the 20th century.'

In the 1990's, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., published articles saying it had slanted coverage and published propaganda at the behest of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which had been created to infiltrate and discredit civil rights groups. But few, if any, newspapers have taken critical looks at what was the less egregious, but more common, practice of simply disregarding civil rights protests in their hometowns, journalism experts said.

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