Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation

News Media & Civil Rights in the North

The news media’s support for the southern civil rights movement is one of the iconic stories we tell about race in America, but it is a limited and limiting story. This story is powerful and widely accepted because both civil rights leaders and television journalists who covered civil rights in the South declared the medium’s importance to the movement. “Had it not been for TV I do not think the civil rights movement could have succeeded as quickly,” said Julian Bond, who cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and served as that civil rights organization’s communications director. “I think it would have won out in the end but television brought it home just so quickly.” Robert Schakne, who covered the Little Rock school integration crisis for CBS News, said, “We had no idea that our form of journalism would essentially change the way the country thought.” William Monroe, NBC’s Washington bureau chief, described television as “the chosen instrument of the revolution,” and argued that “network-television newscasts brought in the message day after day that integration was overtaking other Southern cities and that it could not be prevented.” “The Negro revolution of the 1960’s could not have occurred without the television coverage that brought it to almost every home in the land,” said CBS Reports producer William Peters. “Those who have tried with the written word to make the facts of Mississippi come alive to the people of Minnesota, as I have, probably applaud with me the success of television in accomplishing this difficult feat.”

One of the reasons the southern civil rights movement resonated so powerfully through television and photojournalism was that it presented a stark distinction between good and evil. Virtuous black demonstrators withstood verbal harassment and physical violence from nasty white segregationists. Images of confrontations in Little Rock, Birmingham, and Selma framed racism in stark detail. Wallace Westfeldt, a Nashville newspaper reporter who went on to work as an executive producer of NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, said, “Even without any commentary, a shot of a big white man spitting and cursing at black children did more to open up the national intellect than my [newspaper] stories ever could.” Both the civil rights movement and the news media were invested in exposing these acts of excessive violence to audiences outside the South. In the midst of the voting rights marches in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Martin Luther King told marchers and the news media, “We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.” This strategy successfully exposed physical acts of violence, but it worked less well to reveal other forms of racism and discrimination. While police and private citizens certainly perpetrated acts of physical violence against black people in the North as well, it was far more difficult to expose to the “glaring light of television” the policies and actions that produced and maintained segregated neighborhoods and schools. These structural dimensions of racial segregation often worked subtly and developed over decades, which made them difficult to capture and make visible in a photograph or television broadcast.

If television was successful in framing the southern civil rights struggle as a moral imperative, the news media did not present civil rights activity in the North with the same moral clarity. Analysis of the coverage of “busing” for school desegregation reveals how mainstream media personnel based mostly in the North covered civil rights in the North differently than it did in the South. New York Times managing editor Turner Catledge recognized that his and other northern papers brought a different scrutiny to civil rights stories and the “race beat” in the South. “We’ve had open season on the South here now for some time,” Catledge remarked to a conference of editors and publishers in 1963, “and it seems to me that, especially when you read the editorial pages in the North, some people are too much concerned about what’s going on somewhere else and too little concerned about what’s going on right at their own door.” While Catledge recognized that the Times covered civil rights stories “at their own door” timidly, the paper’s editorial positions on school desegregation in New York did little to change this dynamic. The New York Times, like the Montgomery Advertiser and many other southern newspapers, framed civil rights activists’ demands for school desegregation as equivalent to white protestors’ demands to maintain school segregation. Some city dailies, like the Chicago Tribune, were openly hostile to the civil rights movement and calls for school desegregation in their cities. National television news broadcasts framed protest marches for and against school desegregation using similar camera angles, shot sequencing, and interview questions. Whereas news media helped underscore the urgency of the black civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, by the mid-1960s and 1970s white “antibusing” protestors received the vast bulk of media attention. Television and print news helped establish “busing” as the common-sense way of discussing school desegregation. By overemphasizing white parents’ and politicians’ resistance to “busing,” news media contributed to the perspective that desegregation was moving too fast and was unrealistic.

For their part, “antibusing” activists were careful students of the civil rights movement and the movement’s media strategies. White “antibusing” demonstrators purposefully modeled their protests on civil rights marches, and television news’ production techniques heightened these similarities, shaping the protests into segments that looked very similar. “Martin Luther King walked all over and he got a lot of things done,” Irene McCabe announced at an “antibusing” rally in Pontiac in 1971. “This is our civil rights movement.” At a March 1964 rally against school desegregation and “busing,” a white mother freely acknowledged to an NBC television reporter that civil rights activists inspired the parents’ choice of strategies. “We feel like we can prove as much as our opponents [using] the same tactics,” she said. “We have as much right as they do. These are our civil rights and we’re taking advantage of them.” Framed in this way, the white defense of school segregation in the North looked much more reasonable and justified than similar efforts in the South. “TV didn’t determine the outcome, but it did aid and abet those motivated to destroy integration in any form,” Los Angeles Superior Court judge Paul Egly said in 1981. “That [busing resistance] was the story TV could understand. TV didn’t understand the story that was going on in court. They didn’t understand the minority side. There was no story for them there because there were no riots, no pickets, nothing whatsoever but poor education and segregation.” As historian Nathan Irvin Huggins noted in 1978, television cameras “broadcast the sentiments of the white, Pontiac, Michigan, housewife [Irene McCabe] protesting ‘forced busing’ as earnestly as they had the achievement of Mrs. Rosa Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott.” It is impossible to understand the longevity and intensity of “busing” as a political issue without understanding how news media framed the subject and how parents and politicians made savvy use of television and print news to oppose “busing.”

Television reporting on controversial political issues like civil rights and the war in Vietnam created a lively debate among politicians, policymakers, and citizens regarding what counted as balanced news coverage. In Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine, “the requirement that discussion of public issues be presented on broadcast stations, and that each side of those issues must be given fair coverage.” Four years later, in CBS v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court found that “since it is physically impossible to provide time for all viewpoints . . . the broadcaster, therefore, is allowed significant journalistic discretion in deciding how best to fulfill the Fairness Doctrine obligations.” Beyond these court cases, a broad public debate swirled around the balance and fairness of television news, with dozens of books and articles arguing that television news was politically biased in favor of either liberals or conservatives. (The Vanderbilt Television News Archive, one of the key archives for my research, was founded in 1968 in part to monitor whether network news broadcasts were presenting one-sided coverage of Vietnam.) The Nixon administration figured prominently in these debates over political bias, as the president, Vice President Spiro Agnew, and advisers like Pat Buchanan sparred constantly with the news media and looked for ways to get the president’s message directly to the American people without being filtered and criticized by broadcasters.

These debates over balanced coverage often overlooked the fact that the stories television networks defined as newsworthy had little to do with political beliefs of anchors like Walter Cronkite or John Chancellor and much more to do with producers and assignment editors who determined where to assign correspondents and camera crews. Once a story like “busing” was identified as newsworthy, it continued to receive regular coverage. Producing the news required anticipating the news, and at each network the majority of stories were assigned in advance in order to have the stories shot, transmitted to New York, edited, and narrated in time for the nightly broadcast. “We have the whole country to cover, and we can’t just set up cameras and wait for news to happen somewhere,” an NBC producer told journalist Edward Jay Epstein. “We have to plan it out in advance.” To cover national news in the late 1960s, NBC national news had regular camera crews only in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Cleveland, as well as camera operators who could form ad hoc crews in Boston, Houston, and Dallas (CBS and ABC had similar operations). Covering the “antibusing” protests in Pontiac, for example, meant dispatching the Chicago- or Cleveland-based camera crew and then transmitting the news report electronically over an AT&T closed-circuit “long line” connection from an affiliate station in Detroit to broadcasting facilities in New York. These “long line” connections were expensive. In his 1973 study of the television news industry, Epstein described an NBC executive rejecting a story about a new Boeing passenger plane because “I just didn’t think it was worth four thousand dollars [for a long line] to go to Seattle.” These economic and technological factors meant television producers favored stories that were sure to deliver compelling visuals, connect to establish story lines, and resonate with national audiences. “Antibusing” protests fit all three of these criteria of newsworthiness. Once television producers had identified “antibusing” protests in cities like Boston, Louisville, and Pontiac as newsworthy, these cities were more likely to be covered (and overcovered) in future news plans.

When viewing the relationship between television news and civil rights over a longer time frame, it is clear that production decisions regarding what makes for compelling visual news and the cost of securing this footage outweighed any moral or political commitments television personnel brought to their work. For a time, these production dynamics favored civil rights stories that developed at a safe distance from the North. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, television producers deemed the southern civil rights movement to be worthy of allocating camera crews and correspondents, and the images produced in Little Rock, Birmingham, and Selma repaid the high financial cost of gathering the news and transmitting the footage back to New York. Just a few years later, however, “antibusing” protests replaced the civil rights movement in the calculus of producing television news. Whatever praise television news personnel deserve for advancing civil rights in the South must be tempered by the fact that television news advanced the resistance to “busing” for school desegregation as a national story with the same vigor.

Television news broadcasts were not designed to produce deeply researched reports, and they were particularly ill equipped to present complex stories like school desegregation, which involved law, education, politics, social science, and history. Despite the enormous audience for national television news and the political and cultural influence of these broadcasts, the networks devoted very little money to research departments. “At NBC News . . . there have been no adequate facilities for backgrounding a story,” former anchorman Robert MacNeil noted in 1967. “An index or morgue or clipping service which collects and files information from day to day for instant retrieval is the most elemental part of a news organization. Broadcasters, however, have to rely on their memories, on what recent newspapers they can find, or on what makeshift files they are able to patch together in the midst of very busy lives.” A research director noted similar limitations at CBS. “The Evening News, our network flagship, has only one researcher to handle queries on everything from Viet Nam to multiple birth. And for the hectic, final half-hour before air, our main CBS News reference library is closed.” Without extensive research departments, network news programs in this era relied on Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) wire services for the majority of their story assignments and background. In this vein, TV news producer Av Westin described the network evening news as “an illustrated headline service . . . not a broadcast of record.” The wire services, in turn, produced more stories on the subjects that television broadcasts elevated as newsworthy. This dynamic meant that once “busing” became identified as newsworthy, television news and wire service editors continued to look for stories that connected with this news hook. The United States Commission on Civil Rights complained in 1972 that “somehow the busing-for-desegregation debate has become clouded in its own language and expressions, in which the word ‘busing’ almost always follows such labels as ‘massive’ and ‘forced.’ . . . [S]omehow a pattern of fears and myths has become fixed in the minds of the public, making it hard to sort out the facts and determine what is true and what is false.” The Commission on Civil Rights did not have the public relations budget or expertise to challenge the “fears and myths” prompted in the battle over “busing.” “Antibusing” parents and politicians were able to turn the news media to their advantage because they organized media-ready protests, and speeches simplified the complex issue of school desegregation into an easily legible news hook, “busing.”

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