Sleeping through the dream

With the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington fast approaching, I had intended to check old newspapers at the Library of Congress to see how the mainstream reported the march. I confess to having an ulterior motive: I participated in that march and wanted to test the view, now a commonplace, that the media never gets right a story about which one has no personal knowledge.

Unfortunately, veteran Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser has beaten me to the punch. Not only that, he shows that the Post missed the boat to a degree that I would not have imagined possible.

Kaiser writes:

The main event that day was what we now call the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important speeches in U.S. history. But on the day it was given, The Post didn’t think so. We nearly failed to mention it at all. . . .[The] lead story, which began under a banner headline on the front page and summarized the events of the day, did not mention King’s name or his speech. . . .

In that paper of Aug. 29, 1963, The Post published two dozen stories about the march. Every one missed the importance of King’s address. The words “I have a dream” appeared in only one, a wrap-up of the day’s rhetoric on Page A15 — in the fifth paragraph. We also printed brief excerpts from the speeches, but the three paragraphs chosen from King’s speech did not include “I have a dream.”

This is baffling. It’s not as if King’s speech flew under the radar. To the contrary, it stood out like a sparkling gem in the rock garden of endless mediocre oratory served up, so it seemed, by every civil rights leader in country and his brother.

Less than a minute into King’s speech, my father looked at me. He wanted to make sure I understood that this was something exceptional. My look back showed him that I did.

This collection of remembrances by participants in the march includes a number of statements similar to the following:

When [Dr. King] started talking, everybody got quiet. You didn’t hear babies crying or anything. It was just still. And the momentum that started to build up, you saw people crying. I was crying. And you saw people, strangers, black and white, hugging each other. Even now when I hear the speech, I’ll start crying. I don’t care where I am, tears will start coming.

I don’t remember crying or hugging, but without question a hush came over the crowd early on in King’s speech.

I’m also at a loss to understand how the Post selected three paragraphs from King’s speech without including “I have a dream.” This wasn’t exactly a buried subtext in the address.

Oh, well. At least the Post didn’t report that King said “I have a scheme” or “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”

I don’t think that conservatives who criticize the mainstream media overestimate its level of bias. But I believe we underestimate its level of incompetence.

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