In my first “real” newspaper assignment — probably toward the end of 1958 — I covered a speech by Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas to the White Citizens Council in a school auditorium in Northport, just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa.
They did not call us “the liberal media” back then. Usually, they just said “lying newspapers.”
I had just been hired as campus correspondent by The Birmingham News. This was my second year in journalism at the University of Alabama. The word “correspondent” sounded significant because I had read exploits of “war correspondents” and “Washington correspondents,” and there was even a movie titled “Foreign Correspondent,” starring Joel McRea.
Not only that but The Birmingham News had just hired me that afternoon for the incredible salary of $60 a month.
I had applied for the job weeks ago, so they had my number and name, and when the assignment came up, they didn’t have anyone else to send.
I got to the meeting 30 minutes early, introduced myself to a couple of stout men in white shirts, ties and black trousers, and asked where the press section was.
“The press section?” laughed one.
“Oh, the press section,” said the other. He went out a side door and came back with a folding chair, then brought in a typing table and then made a big deal about writing the word “press” on a sheet of typing paper.
He taped it to the front edge of the table. They did not bring any more chairs or tables which was just as well because no other newspaper ever showed up. This was it. I was the press section. It was not impressive.
By the time Gov. Faubus arrived, the auditorium was full of loud-talking members of the White Citizens Council, who broke into cheers and applause for the governor.
Faubus gained his fame in 1957 by calling out the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock public schools.
A local politician gave a rousing welcome to Faubus, and here in Alabama in 1958, the continuing battle against the U.S. Supreme Court decision to integrate public schools was off and running.
I can’t remember the exact wording of the speech, but the cliches of that day had to do with the Supreme Court ignoring States’ Rights and how “lying newspapers” were attacking the South.
Popular charges of that day included: Time (magazine) is for people who can’t think, and Life (primarily a photo magazine) is for people who can’t read.
He ended with a tirade against “lying newspapers.” He did not use the phrase of today, “the liberal news media,” but the same tone and meaning of today was alive in that Northport auditorium in 1957.
From the crowd’s perspective, me and my little chair and table were to the left of Faubus’ platform. Toward the end, the speaker pointed to me taking notes with my No. 2 leaded pencil on my small table, and pretty much said, “This is the powerful force we are up against.” He had first pointed to the press section without looking. Then when he said, “powerful force,” he looked straight at me.
I looked up about that time, somewhat startled by the attention I was getting. And even the crowd, I think, found it amusing that this unimpressive section represented the “monstrous and evil press.”
The scene did not serve the speaker’s premise well. It made him look weak.
Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org