Mass Media in the Shaping of the Civil Rights Movement


As an information serving entity, the media plays an undeniable role in shaping the public conscious, and has since its earliest inceptions in print form. The media’s functional purpose as an informative network has served the public in more good ways than bad. The media acts as a mirror; it reflects our own beliefs and opinions, articulating them better than we could ourselves. The media is a watchdog; it has eyes and ears where the average citizen does not. It informs us of events that happen across the globe. The media protects us by keeping a watchful eye on our leaders, lest they become too powerful or abuse their positions. Media at its best does all of these things. However, at times the media oversteps its boundaries by shading or distorting the truth. Whether to reinforce erroneous beliefs held by popular culture, or to serve a governmental body, mass media can distort the facts to better-fit the “story”, whatever that story may be. It is an undeniable fact that the United States media throughout our history has served the agenda of the rich and powerful by distorting the truth.

The advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s can be seen to directly correlate with the increased use of the television in American homes. This is important to note as we discuss mass media’s role in shaping the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1950’s, the television was a novelty owned by few. According to PBS, in 1960 ninety percent of Americans owned a television. The addition of a visual medium was a major catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement. Those in the northern states could see what was taking place in the south, and vice versa. American citizens were able to witness the violence that was taking place in graphic detail, forcing them to challenge previously held beliefs. The television provided anti-segregationists with unlimited potential to expose American citizens to the truth. Unfortunately, Americans were not always presented with the truth of racial equality. Early in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the south, news corporations worked to reinforce the status quo that was racism and segregation. The media in the deep south played a part in the social system that claimed blacks to be inferior, and it worked to reinforce this belief.

In Todd Gitlin’s classic work of sociology entitled “The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left”, Gitlin outlines the effects of mass media on particular aspects of the student/antiwar movement (32). Gitlin highlights the different ways in which the media represented the SDS- Students for a Democratic Society- and how this misrepresentation affected the organization as a whole (127). In this essay, I plan to illuminate several ways in which mass media affected the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly examine how media coverage affected violence in the social movement. The aspects of Gitlin’s book I have chosen to cover and apply to the Civil Rights Movement include the media’s role in perpetuating the status quo, it’s tendency to certify leaders and convert leadership into celebrity, the media’s inflation of rhetoric and militancy in order to create a more media coverage, as well as the media’s role in directly assisting the ruling elite to extend and reinforce the ruling classes hegemonic values.

The makings of the Civil Rights Movement began in the south. Here, segregation was so deeply rooted into the social, economic, and political system that it was a way of life. It wasn’t something to be questioned, and the media served the hegemonic values of the south by shying away from any inquisitive reporting as to the rigorous social structure held in place. It is often suggested that national television news coverage of the Civil Rights Movement helped transform the United States by allowing viewers to see the violence of segregation. While this certainly was the case later on in the Civil Rights Movement, early on, especially in the Deep South, the news media had quite the opposite effect. Rather than showing the truth, the media either distorted the facts or omitted them entirely. This was commonplace among the southern states.

The Birmingham riot of 1963 was an example of civil disorder in the south that was purposefully ignored and distorted by the news media. The riot was provoked by bombings on the night of May 11, 1963. The bombings targeted leaders of the Birmingham Campaign, a movement organized by the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to bring attention to integration efforts in the area. It is thought that the bombings were planned and executed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The bombings triggered riots, and the mostly young, black protestors were met with repressive force from the Birmingham Police Department, in the form of vicious dogs and high-powered water hoses. Alabama Public Radio reports now that Birmingham News had relegated the story to a lesser page, and left out the shocking images that were circulated throughout the rest of the United States (2).

It’s easy to see the media’s potential to use journalism as a tool for social change, to break down stereotypes and influence the public. The media has tremendous power in terms of influencing the populace. Unfortunately, early in the Civil Rights Movement news media often chose to only cover the “breaking stories” of the movement, typically those involving violence, rather than taking a journalistic lens to the everyday problems blacks in this country faced. The fact that the overarching story of the hardships African Americans had faced since the beginning of the slave trade were blatantly ignored by the news media speaks to the segregationist agenda of the hegemony (254).

In chapter 10 of Todd Gitlin’s book, he focuses primarily on the function of media in perpetuating the status quo (249). Gitlin explains the ways that the media can serve the hegemony, being the dominant political and social philosophy of the ruling class. The elite in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 were in favor of segregation. The ultimate goal of a hegemony (259) that wishes to suppress a people becomes the penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) (253) into the common sense and every day practice of those people. We see this not only happen in Birmingham as the local media refused to run a high profile story on the race riots, but throughout the south. Even where the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t ignored in the south, the stories were often only reported if they included violence, attracting the wrong type of attention and refusing the bigger question that is, why is this violence occurring? Hegemony exists when a ruling class is able not only to coerce a subordinate class to conform to its interests, but also exerts a social authority over those that the government does not seek to oppress. We see this social authority imposed in media, where the ideology of the common citizen is shaped and molded to fit the hegemonic values. We see attempts to subordinate blacks by southern governments throughout the Civil Rights Movement, be it through scare tactics, terrorism, or outright repression. The news media in the south worked to repress blacks through a form of racial injustice; choosing to not cover certain stories that may shed light on the situation, or distorting the truth in instances where the stories are covered.

The ruling class was established as a result of slavery, slavery was upheld as a result of racism. It is difficult to justify the type of slavery that took place in the United States unless the populace held the belief that those enslaved were somehow inferior to those not. Thus, it was in the interest of the ruling class to uphold racism. It would seem that the very economic system of the United States was established on the pillars of racism. Although slavery itself had collapsed, the structure that placed whites at the top of the socio-economic ladder was held together by racism (258). The broader, ideological story that is structural racism in America was left unspoken during the Civil Rights Movement. Mainstream media was largely sympathetic to the black cause, yet the fact that the media often chose only to cover the Civil Rights Movement when things became violent hurt the movement as much as it helped it. Americans saw the end result, being violence, without being shown the roots of this violence (263). Average American citizens desired normalcy above all else, and as they were only shown the visceral elements of the movement, many were unsympathetic to the movement as a whole.

In chapter 6 of The Whole World Is Watching, Gitlin analyzes the media’s role in exacerbating the militant tendencies of the SDS movement (192). His main argument, as its title “Inflating Rhetoric and Militancy” would suggest, is that the media inflated the rhetoric and militancy within the movement to create more media coverage. This tactic is seen time and time again, throughout the Civil Rights Movement as well as in more recent years, for example, media coverage regarding police brutality. The focus of the media has typically been placed on the rioting, marching, etc. and not on the reasons behind the marching. Whether during the Civil Rights Movement, the coverage of SDS, or even more recent racially divisive issues such as the race riots in Ferguson, MO, or Baltimore, MD, following the deaths of black men Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, respectively, news media often only covers issues they believe will be violent (196-197). “Where a picket line might have been news in 1965, it took tear gas and bloodied heads to make headlines in 1968. If the last demonstration was counted at 100,000, the next would have to number 200,000; otherwise it would be downplayed or framed as a sign of the movement’s waning.” Gitlin makes it very clear in this chapter that the need for attention by SDS meant that they were forced to play into the media’s hands, which meant a growing need for violence within the organization.

In chapter seven of The Whole World Is Watching, Todd Gitlin explores the moment when media reform becomes necessary for the organization as a whole. As the Vietnam War progressed and sympathy for the antiwar movement grew, the media was forced to change its framing of the movement as a whole. The media was coerced into forming a new consensus as the consensus of the United States itself had shifted. The same thing happens as the Civil Rights Movement gathers steam. Initially, we see news organizations in the south deliberately distorting the harsh reality of racism, and at times omitting the facts from their media coverage altogether. However, as the overall message of the Civil Rights Movement began to resonate with the American people, the southern media was forced to change its framing from occasional coverage of events to a sweeping indictment of segregation and racism as a whole. The institution of racism was at last brought under a microscope, and American citizens were forced to look. The media is seen time and time again as self-serving, perpetuating the hegemonic values of the ruling class and extending the status quo unless forced to change by the demands of the population.

In chapter five of his book, The Whole World Is Watching, Gitlin explains the ways in which the media’s framing of SDS made celebrities of some leaders, and left others out of the spotlight (146-179). Some of the leaders that were made into celebrities were not adequate leaders, and this caused immense pressure within the group as a whole. This same process took place within the Nation of Islam, regarding Malcolm X. As Malcolm rose in popularity, it became increasingly difficult for the Nation of Islam to hold him accountable to what they deemed appropriate behavior (148). The media framed Malcolm as a larger than life political figure, elevating him above even Elijah Muhammad in the public eye. This became problematic not only due to the fact that the two held different views on a variety of issues, from secularism to the use of violence in politics, it was also problematic due to Elijah Muhammad’s increasing paranoia and jealousy of Malcolm’s fame. The ranks of the Nation of Islam wanted their leaders to lead, yet they were uneasy with them at the same time; the mixed messages they sent made the leaders’ situation untenable in the long term.

Despite the tendency of the media to erroneously create celebrities out of social movements; often to the detriment of not only the individual but the organization as well, some leaders are able to maintain their own celebrity whilst effectively leading their movement as well. A primary example of this would be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I believe strongly that the only reason King appeared to remain steadfast to his cause despite media interference is simply because the media never factored into his decision-making.

When discussing how the media effects movements and celebrities, it is important to understand that above all else, the media as a whole is at times a self-serving entity that occasionally adopts a business model to guide its practice. The media (again, there are exceptions) tends to relay information only as it best serves itself, its ratings, viewership, etc. We have seen reporters time and time again distort the facts in order to present a sensational, if not factual, story.

With that being said, Dr. King appears to remain steadfast not because he was a master manipulator of the media, but rather because he let the media come and go as they pleased, never allowing their opinions or stories change his mission. Dr. King stayed true to non-violence because he believed in it. While he was certainly a flawed individual, (as we all are) Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence certainly was an exception to the rule, an individual whose vision changed the media, rather than an individual whose vision was changed by the media.

The media is the vanguard of our modern society. Our culture transmits thoughts and ideas nearly instantaneously thanks to the Internet. Media corporations capable of penetrating the deepest layers of popular culture possess a tremendous responsibility to protect and inform the people of our nation. Whether during the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, regarding the Nation of Islam, or much later, the media has helped to shape our country for better or worse. While journalistic error is nearly certain to occur from time to time, the issue becomes deadly when media corporations intentionally influence public opinion by either distorting the facts, or omitting them altogether. We see the news corporations do this as they attempted to keep the lid on segregation in the south, as well as the media’s attempts to make a celebrity out of Malcolm X directly leading to violence as his militant rhetoric was magnified to create a story rather than keep the peace. As citizens, it is important that we hold large corporations accountable for their actions, and make certain that no conflict of interest occurs.


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