I've been watching television a lot in recent days.
A documentary film series on Vietnam and images covering what happened at Little Rock Central High 60 years ago have been riveting for me. Though they are mostly sights and subjects I have observed and taught about countless times, I have nonetheless been transfixed.
It is fitting that we are re-viewing the Vietnam War through the medium (and filter) of television (in this case the masterful and searing PBS documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick) because the media played a central role in informing and influencing the American public about that controversial and costly war.
And it was 60 years ago this week that Little Rock became synonymous with opposition to school desegregation. That resistance branded Arkansas as a segregationist stronghold. What occurred in Little Rock became a landmark in American history. It was one of the first civil rights controversies to receive extensive on-the-spot television coverage when Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering school at the beginning of the fall 1957 term.
As many as 300 journalists were involved in coverage of the Little Rock events. Author and journalist David Halberstam said Little Rock became the prime example of television's growing impact on social change. The Little Rock story was "the first all-out confrontation between the force of the law and the force of the mob, played out with television cameras whirring away in black and white for a nation that was by now largely wired."
Photographic and televised images of frenzied men and women near Central High protesting desegregation -- in some cases harassing and threatening the black students seeking to enter the school -- were seen around the globe. It marked the beginning of the visual element in civil rights coverage. The apex of coverage came on September 25-26, 1957, after President Eisenhower announced on national TV he was ordering the use of troops to protect the black students entering the school.
Anyone with Arkansas connections could expect that the subject would come up regardless of where you were. In my case, that included my students when teaching in Kenya.
Three Pulitzer Prizes and other honors were awarded for journalistic excellence and courage on the Little Rock story. The Arkansas Gazette, which strongly opposed Faubus on this issue, won a Pulitzer for public service.
I wrote my master's thesis on "Little Rock and the Press," and interviewed some of the journalists involved in the coverage. Relman "Pat" Morin, a veteran Associated Press correspondent previously awarded a Pulitzer for coverage of the Korean War, won a Pulitzer for his reporting of the Little Rock events. He told me, "It was like being in the front row of a theater, watching a vivid and terrible drama." At one point, he was in a phone booth dictating his eyewitness account to the AP bureau when protesters began to try to tip the phone booth over with him inside until police restored a measure of order.
I also interviewed Faubus, who insisted that he had acted to maintain peace. And he was highly critical of some of the national media coverage. It is true that some coverage was painted with a broad bush -- as Bob Douglas, who had been part of the Gazette staff, said, Time magazine's coverage "painted Arkansas as a bunch of uneducated bigots."
Controversy over desegregation came to dominate Arkansas politics for more than a decade, with Faubus becoming politically invincible in the governor's office. I should note that as a teenager I served as chair of "Youth for Cherry," supporting incumbent governor Francis Cherry, a family friend and neighbor in Jonesboro. In 1954, Cherry was upset in his bid for re-election by Faubus. Earlier that year, following the Brown decision, Cherry said, "Arkansas will obey the law. It always has."
The Vietnam series deals with many different perspectives, Vietnamese and American, and commendably and deservedly focuses on those directly involved in that tragic conflict. The first episode emphasized the importance of understanding another nation's history, culture, language and its own nationalist fervor. American policy-makers had minimal knowledge about Vietnam and originally the public paid scant attention.
But there were several young journalists who saw a burgeoning credibility gap, as did Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who originally deferred to President Johnson on Vietnam, but was increasingly concerned about the escalation of the U.S. role, and didn't see Vietnam as a vital American interest. In 1966, he began holding hearings, which drew national TV coverage and raised awareness of what was occurring in Vietnam. I joined Fulbright's staff not long afterward and sat through dozens of hearings in which administration officials made misleading statements about the status of the war and "light at the end of the tunnel,"
TV images from Vietnam gradually awakened the American public, although there was sharp division over our continuing involvement. The beginning of the end came when highly respected CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite visited Vietnam after the 1968 Tet offensive and reported, "We are mired in a stalemate." Still, it was seven years before the war ended.
For me and for many, what occurred in Little Rock and the Vietnam War were defining events that won't fade away. Television played a central role in providing views of those events. There is much to remember and learn from the TV re-views.
Commentary on 09/27/2017
Print Headline: Televised lessons from the past