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Book: "The Race Beat"

Fifty years ago, while black Americans were risking their lives for civil rights, reporters put themselves in harm's way to cover it. In their book "The Race Beat," Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell the story of how the news media shaped the civil rights movement.

Read an excerpt of the book below.

The winter of 1940 was a cruel one for Gunnar Myrdal, and spring was shaping up even worse. He was in the United States, finishing the research on the most comprehensive study yet of race relations and the condition of Negroes in America. But he was having trouble reaching conclusions, and he struggled to outline and conceptualize the writing. "The whole plan is now in danger of breaking down," he wrote the Carnegie Foundation, which was underwriting his project.

What's more, the gathering crisis in Europe had thrown him into a depression; he feared for the very existence of his native Sweden. In April, Nazi Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. Myrdal believed Sweden would be next. He put aside more than two years of work by 125
researchers and began arranging passage home for himself, his wife,
Alva, and their three children. He and Alva wanted to fight alongside
their countrymen if the worst should come. The boat he found, the
Mathilda Thorden, a Finnish freighter, was laden with explosives, and
the captain tried to dissuade the Myrdals from boarding the dangerous
ship. When this failed, the captain jokingly urged Myrdal to look on
the bright side. He would not have to worry about his family freezing
to death in icy waters. If German U-boats attacked, the resulting
explosion would almost certainly kill everyone instantly.

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The U-boats did not attack, and the Myrdals arrived in Sweden only to
be appalled by what was happening there. Rather than preparing for war
with Germany, the Swedish government was seeking an accommodation with
the Nazis.

Knowing that Germany was monitoring the Swedish press for anti-German
sentiment, the government first confiscated copies of anti-Nazi
newspapers; then, emboldened, it interfered with the distribution of
one of the nation's most important dailies, Göteborgs Handelstidning.
This, Myrdal believed, could not happen in America. He was outraged.
"The press is strangled," he wrote to a Swedish friend in the United
States. "Nothing gets written about Germany. News is suppressed."

There and then, Myrdal's understanding of America and its race
relations became crystallized. In a book that quickly took precedence
over his Carnegie project, then became its seed, Gunnar and Alva
Myrdal wrote Kontakt med Amerika (Contact with America), which was
crafted largely to rally Swedish resistance against Hitler. In
Kontakt, published in 1941, the Myrdals argued that Swedes had much to
learn from America about democracy, dialogue and self-criticism. "The
secret," they wrote, "is that America, ahead of every other country in
the whole Western world, large or small, has a living system of
expressed ideals for human cooperation which is unified, stable and
clearly formulated." The Carnegie project, they added, was evidence of
America's willingness to sanction a sweeping examination and discussion of a national problem.

Almost all of America's citizens, the Myrdals said, believed in free
speech and a free press. Americans respected other viewpoints even
when they strongly disagreed. As a result, diverse ethnic groups were
living with one another in peace while Europe was tearing itself apart.

Before writing Kontakt, Myrdal didn't have the insight or context he
needed for his weightier book on race in America. Nor did he have the
words he felt would serve as the road map to change. Three years
earlier, in 1938, he had reached the South, the dark side of the moon.
There, he had found an enigmatic, sometimes exotic, always deeply
divided and repressive society whose behavior was known to, but
overlooked by, the world beyond. In pursuit of an understanding and
insight that was still beyond his grasp, his immersion had been total,
the details of his discoveries had been staggering, and he had come to
a point where he was no longer horrified by the pathology of racism or
stunned by the cruelty and pervasiveness of discrimination. He had
found himself fascinated by the way an entire social order had been built, and rationalized, around race.

By early 1940, Myrdal frequently found himself feeling oddly
optimistic about attitudes he found despicable, and he was moving,
somewhat unwittingly, toward the conclusion that would become the core
definition of his landmark work, An American Dilemma: that Americans,
for all their differences, for all their warring and rivalries, were
bound by a distinct "American creed," a common set of values that
embodied such concepts as fair play and an equal chance for everyone.
He was coming to that view in the unlikeliest of settings. He had been
able to sit with the rapaciously racist U.S. senator from Mississippi
Theodore Bilbo, listen to his proposal for shipping Negroes back to
Africa, ask why he hadn't proposed instead that they be sterilized, and come away uplifted by Bilbo's answer.

"American opinion would never allow it," Bilbo had told him. "It goes
against all our ideals and the sentiments of the people."

But for all his excitement, information, and knowledge, Myrdal
remained mystified. How had the South's certifiable, pathological
inhumanity toward Negroes been allowed to exist for so long into the
twentieth century? Why didn't anyone outside the South know? If they
did know, why didn't they do something about it? Who could do
something about it? Who would? Where would the leadership for change come from?

Myrdal returned to the United States and his racial study in 1941,
brimming with the insights he would need for An American Dilemma to
have an impact on the country. Seeing his homeland's willingness to
trade freedoms for security of another kind, Myrdal came to appreciate
the vital role the American press could play in challenging the status quo of race relations.

In Sweden, newspapers wanted to report the news but were blocked by
the government. In America, the First Amendment kept the government in
check, but the press, other than black newspapers and a handful of
liberal southern editors, simply didn't recognize racism in America as
a story. The segregation of the Negro in America, by law in the South
and by neighborhood and social and economic stratification in the
North, had engulfed the press as well as America's citizens. The
mainstream American press wrote about whites but seldom about Negro
Americans or discrimination against them; that was left to the Negro press.

Myrdal had a clear understanding of the Negro press's role in
fostering positive discontent. He saw the essential leadership role
that southern moderate and liberal white editors were playing by
speaking out against institutionalized race discrimination, yet he was
aware of the anguish they felt as the pressure to conform intensified.
There was also the segregationist press in the South that dehumanized
Negroes in print and suppressed the biggest story in their midst. And
he came to see the northern press — and the national press, such as it
was — as the best hope for force-feeding the rest of the nation a diet
so loaded with stories about the cruelty of racism that it would have to rise up in protest.

"The Northerner does not have his social conscience and all his
political thinking permeated with the Negro problem as the Southerner
does," Myrdal wrote in the second chapter of An American Dilemma.
"Rather, he succeeds in forgetting about it most of the time. The
Northern newspapers help him by minimizing all Negro news, except
crime news. The Northerners want to hear as little as possible about
the Negroes, both in the South and in the North, and they have, of course, good reasons for that.

"The result is an astonishing ignorance about the Negro on the part of
the white public in the North. White Southerners, too, are ignorant of
many phases of the Negro's life, but their ignorance has not such a
simple and unemotional character as that in the North. There are many
educated Northerners who are well informed about foreign problems but
almost absolutely ignorant about Negro conditions both in their own
city and in the nation as a whole."

Left to their own devices, white people in America would want to keep
it that way, Myrdal wrote. They'd prefer to be able to accept the
stereotype that Negroes "are criminal and of disgustingly, but
somewhat enticingly, loose sexual morals; that they are religious and
have a gift for dancing and singing; and that they are the happy-go-
lucky children of nature who get a kick out of life which white people are too civilized to get."

Myrdal concluded that there was one barrier between the white
northerner's ignorance and his sense of outrage that the creed was
being poisoned. That barrier was knowledge, incontrovertible
information that was strong enough, graphic enough and constant
enough to overcome "the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance."

"A great many Northerners, perhaps the majority, get shocked and
shaken in their conscience when they learn the facts," Myrdal wrote.
"The average Northerner does not understand the reality and the
effects of such discriminations as those in which he himself is taking
part in his routine of life."

Then, underscoring his point in italics, Myrdal reached the conclusion
that would prove to be uncannily prescient. Even before he got to the
fiftieth page of his tome, he wrote, "To get publicity is of the
highest strategic importance to the Negro people."

He added, "There is no doubt, in the writer's opinion, that a great
majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the
Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts."

The future of race relations, Myrdal believed, rested largely in the
hands of the American press.

An American Dilemma was both a portrait of segregation and a mirror in
which an emerging generation of southerners would measure themselves.
In a few short years, the book would have a personal impact on a core
group of journalists, judges, lawyers, and academicians, who, in turn,
would exercise influence on race relations in the South over the next
two decades. The book would become a cornerstone of the Supreme
Court's landmark verdict against school segregation a full decade
later, and it would become a touchstone by which progressive
journalists, both southern and northern, would measure how far the
South had come, how far it had to go, and the extent of their roles and responsibilities.

The Myrdal investigation was so incisive and comprehensive — monumental,
even — that it would for many years remain a mandatory starting point
for anyone seriously studying race in the United States. Its timing
was perfect. Most of its fieldwork occurred in the three years before
the United States entered World War II, a period in which segregation
in the South was as rigid as it ever got. The book ran 1,483 pages
long, yet was a distillation of a raw product that included 44
monographs totaling 15,000 pages.

More remarkable than the study's impact was its foresight. The coming
years would prove, time and again, the extraordinary connection
between news coverage of race discrimination-publicity, as Myrdal
called it-and the emerging protest against discrimination-the civil
rights movement, as it became known. That movement grew to be the most
dynamic American news story of the last half of the twentieth century.

At no other time in U.S. history were the news media — another phrase
that did not exist at the time — more influential than they were in the
1950s and 1960s, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. From the
news coverage came significant and enduring changes not only in the
civil rights movement but also in the way the print and television
media did their jobs. There is little in American society that was not
altered by the civil rights movement. There is little in the civil
rights movement that was not changed by the news coverage of it. And
there is little in the way the news media operate that was not influenced by their coverage of the movement.

An American Dilemma began with a decision by the Carnegie Corporation
to conduct a comprehensive study of race in America, and especially of
segregation and white supremacy in the South. Recalling the
contribution of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, in his book
Democracy in America, the foundation decided its racial study should
be headed by a non-American scholar from a country with no history of colonialism or racial domination.

In the beginning, Myrdal declined the Carnegie offer. He was, after
all, a member of the House of the Swedish Parliament, the rough
equivalent of the U.S. Senate. He was also a director of the national
bank at a moment when Sweden was hobbled by economic depression. He
would have to resign both positions and take leave from a prestigious
chair in economics at the University of Stockholm, where he was
considered one of the nation's most brilliant academics. What's more,
the Myrdals had recently found an ideological home and leadership
positions in the reform policies of the Social Democratic Party, which
favored social engineering and economic planning.

He was fluent in English and no stranger to the United States. He and
Alva, a psychologist, had been fellows in the Rockefeller Foundation's
social science program in 1929-30. He had refused the Rockefeller
Foundation traveling fellowship for himself until the foundation
agreed to make Alva a fellow as well. No one at the foundation had reason to regret the deal.

Indeed, officials of the Rockefeller Foundation regarded Gunnar Myrdal
as one of the program's great successes and recommended him with
enthusiasm to Frederick P. Keppel, president of the Carnegie Corporation.

After saying no, Myrdal changed his mind, but only on the condition
that he have complete control over planning the study. The foundation agreed.

Myrdal became enthusiastic. "I shall work on the Negro-I will do
nothing else," he wrote. "I shall think and dream of the Negro 24 hours a day. ..."

He began work in September 1938, almost immediately on his arrival,
and plunged into it with confidence; he viewed himself as "born
abnormally curious" and specially suited to the investigation of a
complicated social problem.

On his first field trip, Myrdal was accompanied by his primary
researcher and writer, Ralph Bunche, a UCLA- and Harvard-educated
Negro whose urbane presence was more jarring than Myrdal's in some
parts of the South. Myrdal was stunned by what he saw. Though prepared
for the worst, the Swedish economist had not anticipated anything like
this. "I didn't realize," he promptly wrote his sponsor, Keppel, "what
a terrible problem you have put me into. I mean we are horrified."

To get an understanding of segregation, the talkative Myrdal and his
team moved through the southern states, absorbing experiences, data,
impressions, previous studies, and viewpoints. The South they
discovered was but a single lifetime, fifty-six years, removed from
the end of Reconstruction.

As an economist, he was staggered by the material plight of Negroes.
It was so grindingly desperate that only one word seemed to describe it: pathological. For southern Negroes, poverty had become a disease of
epidemic proportions. "Except for a small minority enjoying upper or
middle class status, the masses of American Negroes, in the rural
south and in the segregated slum quarters in southern cities, are destitute," Myrdal wrote.

"They own little property; even their household goods are mostly
inadequate and dilapidated. Their incomes are not only low but
irregular. They thus live day to day and have scant security for the future."

Excerpted from The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
Copyright © 2006 by Gene Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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