Panel Reviews Lessons of Kerner Commission, 40 Years Later
Forty years ago, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released a report highlighting the causes of black hostilities in America – results that “still have far-reaching effects today,” according to Jannette L. Dates, Ph.D., dean of the John H. Johnson School of Communications at Howard University.
“By the 1960s a schism between white and black America that had been brewing for many, many years really came to a head,” Dates said. “There was a big divide in U.S. society.”
Informally known as the Kerner Report, the document stated that media portrayal of African Americans contributed to this divide, fueling riots in Washington and other cities during the late sixties. The report cautioned that the United States was headed toward two Americas.
As part of its distinguished lecturer series, the Preparing Future Journalism Faculty Program (J-Faculty) held a panel discussion to consider how far the media has come in the coverage of African Americans since the report.
“We’ve come together to consider some of these issues and to assess if much has changed in the last 40 years,” Dates said, “and ask what role the media has taken to advance more accurate images of a diverse America.”
James N. Crutchfield, the distinguished lecturer and former president and publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, said the Kerner Report was the blueprint for his career in journalism.
“The Kerner Commission report was a compelling indictment of American racism,” Crutchfield said. “It linked the ’60s frustration and violence of Rochester, Harlem, Chicago, New York and Detroit to racial discrimination, police violence and brutality, poverty, unemployment, bad schools, bad housing and poor health care and it put a large share of the blame on us, journalists, or should I say ‘them’ – hardly any of us were part of journalism at the time.”
Crutchfield, now a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said the media has made “slow” progress since the report.
“What journalists do is important. I have no personal complaints about progress, but I do not think the country and the news media have come far enough,” he said. “In fact, I fear that we’re going backward right now in whom we employ and promote.”
With a growing minority population, Crutchfield said that news coverage should be representative of the people it serves. “A Kerner Report today would be talking about similar issues because despite the obvious progress, we still have a persistent underclass and the commission would have the same kind of concerns for Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Appalachians, Arabs, gays and women today,” Crutchfield said.
The Kerner Report also made recommendations to suppress and prevent future race riots, one which stated that blacks should gain access into newsroom as employees. According to the commission’s findings, 99 percent of reporters were white during the time period of the report. Little has changed today.
“As the numbers of employees, overall, fall at newspapers across the country … I believe that cuts are falling disproportionately among minorities,” said Crutchfield, who was one of the first black reporters at the Pittsburgh Press. “Too often still, I think, we’re the last in and the first out. We’re going through a shake-out, and I believe a lot of the people shaken out are minorities.”
Dates said that the School of Communications at Howard was created as a result of the commissions’ recommendation.
“It was in 1971, three years after the Kerner Commission report, as a direct result of that report that Howard University decided that we should have a School of Communications,” Dates said.
The program featured a panel discussion that also included Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), who said that students have a great opportunity to be part of a big change.
Peggy A. Lewis, assistant professor at Howard, also said that journalism students have a role in changing the face of reporting.
“We still have a lack of diversity in our newsrooms that do not tell the stories of the communities they represent,” Lewis said. “Students have an obligation to come in and make a difference and to insist upon having the kinds of stories and kinds of representation that speak to where we are today.”
A two-day symposium, “Unfinished Business: Reflecting on 40 Years After the Kerner Commission,” will be held in the fall and continue the year-long commemoration of the report.