Veteran journalist and civil rights activist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, winner of two Peabodys and two Emmys and author of a new book, To the Mountain Top: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, isn’t happy with the media, particularly the way it covers people of color.
The featured speaker at a Branford College master’s tea in February, Hunter-Gault said that when the media reports on young black men, it is inevitably to report on their “pathology” or their lives as star athletes. “There’s no coverage of their normal lives,” she said. “There are amazing things not being publicized.” Hunter-Gault, who was also in town to receive the International Festival of Arts and Ideas Visionary Leadership Award, said that upon returning to the United States after 15 years living in South Africa, she was “distressed by some of what I learned.” For example, AIDS among women of color in this country is as prevalent in some areas, including Washington, D.C., as it is in South Africa. “That’s not part of the public conversation,” she said. She was also troubled by the number of young black men in prison. Hunter-Gault says coverage of this story is shallow at best. “What worries me is that the conversations we have are not getting to things.” Reporters need to “go into the homes of those young people. How did they get in that position? There are social issues in this country that are not being addressed,” she said.
None of this is new, said Hunter-Gault, one of the first black students to integrate the University of Georgia in 1961. After the 1968 riots in American cities, a commission impaneled by then-President Lyndon Johnson to study the problem concluded that the lack of people of color working in the media was a contributing factor. “Unless it was a racial issue, there were no people of color involved in those discussions,” Hunter-Gault said. For a while minority representation in the media improved, but now, she fears, ground is being lost. She questions whether the younger generation is prepared to continue the fight for civil rights begun by their predecessors. “They’re afraid to stand up, to go against the grain,” she said, adding that commenting on social media and web sites isn’t enough. “Re-posting and commenting isn’t doing much. A lot of people are talkers, not doers.”
Part of the answer, she said, is to “get young people to see our history, to understand our history so they see the power they have. … It takes courage and commitment, values that are transcendent.” The stakes couldn’t be higher, she said. In the last presidential election, she noted, some voters had to produce documentation to prove their identities in order to vote. “It’s like the poll tax is starting to creep back into our lives.” Still, Hunter-Gault is optimistic. Before the last presidential election, the pundits predicted young people wouldn’t turn out in the numbers then did in 2008. “Well, surprise, surprise,” she said. “They turned out. They turned out in force.”