Given all the self-congratulation of the 50th anniversary celebration marking the historic significance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you’d think its importance had been noted at the time, especially by the news media. Well, Jess Bravin has news for you.The day before King gave the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington, a news story in The Wall Street Journal, taking its cue from “Negro leaders” themselves, “questioned whether the march would make an impact,” Bravin writes. And in its news report on the march, The Journal not only “didn’t mention” the speech, it “made no mention of Dr. King at all.” Besides, “the speeches were inaudible to many of those gathered on the Mall,” Bravin reports, and as The Journal’s Washington bureau chief reported at the time, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins himself noted the speeches were “not too important in the proceedings anyway.”
As Bravin also reports, “The Journal wasn’t alone in missing the significance of the speech.” He cites a recent column in The Washington Post pointing out that it, too, “dramatically underplayed Dr. King’s address.” Underplayed is an understatement. How about ignored.
“On the day it was given,” Robert Kaiser, an associate editor of The Post, writes, “one of the most important speeches in U.S. history” barely made it into the news columns. The Post’s “1,300-word 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.”
Among “two dozen stories about the march,” Kaiser adds, “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.’”
The statement that journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” widely but mistakenly credited to Phil Graham, the former Post publisher, needs to be revised. In this case, journalism never made it to a first draft, rough or otherwise.
Postscript: Here’s James Reston’s New York Times story about King’s speech (you’ll have to pay to read it), which Mark Stryker refers to in his comment. Only in baseball is one out of three a batting average to boast about.