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Remembering Halberstam, role of press in civil rights struggle

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

Comment? E-mail me

On David Halberstam’s legacy: News of Halberstam’s death on April 23 in an auto accident was felt throughout American journalism. First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler was a newspaper colleague and friend of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, and will be among the pallbearers at services on April 29.

Halberstam also was a participant in many First Amendment Center programs through the years. He was honored for his coverage and analysis of the Vietnam War, and also for his newspaper reporting and later his books about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

In a May 29, 2001, taping of the center’s public television program “Speaking Freely,” Halberstam talked with host Ken Paulson (then the center's executive director) and Seigenthaler about the First Amendment and a free press’s importance to civil rights protesters:

“(The First Amendment was) … extraordinarily important to the young people who were doing this. They are maybe going to die and they're taking this risk. But one of the things they said was, 'Black people have been taking risks for forever and being killed and lynched, and nobody had paid any attention.' The newspapers had bottled it up, not covered it or put it back on page 38 with two paragraphs,” he said.

“And people complain about political correctness today. Well, the old political correctness was the ability of the mayor of the town and the police chief talking to each other and to the head of the Chamber of Commerce and to the district attorney so that anything blacks did to protest their particular plight got sanitized and not in the paper.

“The role of the media in a free society is so critical. If they (protesters) were going to take these enormous risks to challenge the existing authority, the most important thing was that the rest of the world knows, the rest of the country, the rest of Alabama. Now there was a lot of control of the press in the deep South. What changed it was the coming of national television and local television. Television wanted the story. It was good film, it was not video then. And they were going to run with it.

“The civil rights movement and the coming of national television — '57 through '61, the nation is being wired — those two things come together and the capacity of local Southern papers to suppress and censor local indigenous news ends. But they understood, the kids did, the importance of the media. They would take this risk finally because they were finally getting covered as those who had gone ahead of them for 200 years had not been covered.”

  • (See a transcript of the "Speaking Freely" episode with David Halberstam.)
  • Postscript: In a newspaper column published last week, I noted that new technology — cell phones, camera phones, digital-video capabilities and social-networking sites on the Web like Facebook and MySpace &151; meant that many of us “experienced” news of the horrors of Virginia Tech in a new and personal way, and that the so-called “mainstream media” embraced the new methods of reporting in unprecedented ways.

    A report by the Washington City Paper, noted this week on the journalism news site Romenesko on, tells of The Washington Post’s successful efforts in gathering news about the massacre by prowling online sites like Facebook. The report quotes Post Managing Editor Len Downie as comparing the online work favorably to the tried-and-true journalist's tool of “knocking on doors” to get first-hand accounts of the news.

    As that report and others also noted, another telling element was that students and others who escaped injury in the mass shooting were online within hours — sometimes minutes — of arriving at a place where they could log-on.

    Copyright Office comes to Music City: Senior staff from the U.S. Copyright Office — including U.S. Register of Copyrights Marybeth Peters — conducted a one-day seminar in Nashville on April 20, focusing on issues involving music and creative performances. Much of the day was devoted to updates on law, registration procedures and the like, for an audience of lawyers and music-industry representatives. But at a public session in the afternoon, a panel tackled a difficult subject — also related to new technology.

    According to participants, in a new era of relatively inexpensive high-tech equipment available to many, major record labels often provide funding at the outset and then production-promotion-sales after recording is completed. The actual music element is produced independently by the artist — and all of that raises questions about who rightfully holds the copyright to a particular recorded performance.

    So not only is the music industry challenged by end-users who download songs without payment, but also faces new questions about who “owns” what — which already could be at issue in the collaborative effort involved in making a hit song or album.

    Comment? E-mail me


    Halberstam hailed for reporting on Vietnam, civil rights

    Journalist killed in car crash yesterday remembered for fearless reporting, influential books on critical issues. 04.24.07

    FBI kept file on journalist David Halberstam
    Graduate students obtain documents — which show agency monitored prize-winning author's reporting for more than 20 years — by filing FOIA request. 11.10.08

    Amid Va. Tech horror: experiencing, not just getting, the news
    By Gene Policinski The marvelous minutiae of everyday life revealed through a plethora of media gave humanity to what could have been a cold list of names. 04.22.07

    David Halberstam 'Speaking Freely' transcript

    First Amendment Watch blog with Gene Policinski

    Analysis/Commentary summary page
    View the latest analysis and commentary throughout the First Amendment Center Online.

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