‘Misremembering King Rewrites the Press’s Own Role in History’ – Transcript of CounterSpin's special episode on the media and Martin Luther King

The January 20, 2017, episode of CounterSpin was a special featuring archived interviews about corporate media and Martin Luther King. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King called for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” (photo: NASA/Wikimedia)


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Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC (cc photo: Ron Cogswell)

Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC (cc photo: Ron Cogswell)

Janine Jackson: Quite a few newspapers carried conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg’s complaint that the inauguration boycott, by Congressman John Lewis and others, “is exactly what the Russians probably wanted from the beginning.” (Goldberg’s proof that Lewis’s stance is mere partisanship is that he also boycotted George W. Bush’s 2000 inauguration.)

Still, when Donald Trump greeted the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, if you will, with a swipe at Lewis, many in corporate media expressed ready disapproval for what Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called Trump’s disregard for the American narrative, in which Lewis is an undeniable hero. (For Gerson, Lewis’s challenge to the 2000 election is merely a sign of his “disturbing habit of hyperbole.”)

But the relative ease with which elite media defended John Lewis belies a more complex relationship between the press corps and the civil rights movement, which the King holiday always serves to highlight.

Media’s traditional misremembering of King distorts his ideas and priorities, and rewrites the press’s own role in history; it also projects a distorted vision of what protest means, and how social change happens—a clear view of which is much in demand right now.

We’ve talked about this subject a number of times on the show; we’re going to revisit some of them today on this special look at The Media and Martin Luther King—on CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.


Back in the 1990s, FAIR founder Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon wrote a column, “The Martin Luther King You Don’t See on TV.” It noted how the timeline in media’s story seems to jump from 1965—marching for voting rights in Selma—to King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968. Because national news media have never really come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years, when he challenged the country’s fundamental economic and international priorities, when he opposed the war in Vietnam, when he called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Martin Luther King at the March on Washington

Martin Luther King at the March on Washington.

As Joseph Torres of the group Free Press wrote just recently, “Sanitizing King’s legacy is a deliberate act.” Well, that sanitizing is reflected not just in what media don’t talk about when they talk about King, but also in how they present those things they do discuss. Any holiday roundup, for example, will include footage from the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. The narrative there, put simply, is of a fractious country brought together by the sheer force of King’s moral eloquence, universally recognized and appreciated.

It wasn’t really much like that at all, as CounterSpin discussed with Gary Younge in the summer of 2013, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Gary Younge is New York correspondent for the Guardian and author of the book The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. We asked him about preeminent misrememberings or misunderstandings of King’s words that day.


Gary Younge (cc photo: www.stephan-roehl.de)

Gary Younge: “You ask anybody who knew King well, anybody who was in the movement, did you think we’d be speaking about this speech 50 years later, they all say no.” (cc photo: www.stephan-roehl.de)

Gary Younge: I think the first one is that significant powers, the main powers in the country, did not want the March to take place, and without the March, there wouldn’t have been a speech. Kennedy didn’t want it to take place. Most Americans thought that the March was a bad idea. An overwhelming majority of white Americans thought that the country was moving too quickly towards civil rights. There is this sense that there was a group of bad guys in the South, bad white people with sticks and dogs, and that everybody else was basically on board, and that’s just not the way it happened. So there’s that.

That everybody knew, as soon as that speech was delivered, that it was a speech for the ages, and that it struck a chord immediately. I mean, it was a great speech. I haven’t met anybody who was there say it wasn’t a great speech. Kennedy greeted King, saying, “I have a dream,” and was looking at the March on a TV in the Oval Office and said, “Damn, that man can speak.” It moved people, it certainly moved people.

But you ask anybody who knew King well, anybody who was in the movement, did you think we’d be speaking about this speech 50 years later, they all say no. While the speech was lauded immediately by the New York Times and others, it actually kind of fell from public view. Very few people quoted it; it wasn’t quoted in the Congressional Record barely at all, even though there was a Voting Rights Act and a Civil Rights Act.

And King became more unpopular in the years following the speech. He moved on to poverty and the Vietnam War, and these things got him in an awful lot of trouble. And he died an isolated figure. It was only after he’d been assassinated that the Dream was resurrected, and over the years became polished and gleamed to become a national icon.

So it’s not as though history goes through the collection of speeches that are available and says, this one is the best one objectively, I like his diction, I like his metaphors and so on. It’s America has chosen to remember this speech, because it does something very particular for America in this moment.

JJ: You make a point of the fact that — you know, our listeners may know that — how media ignore King’s anti-war stance and his emphasis on economic restructuring. I remember David Gergen, the pundit, expressing confusion and dismay that Hillary Clinton chose to use a remembrance of King as a time to mention poverty. He thought it was just out of place.

But you make the point that even his views on racism have been misunderstood, and it’s just this fact of segregation, which King was acknowledging the end to, but he didn’t believe that segregation and racism were the same thing, and that racism ended with segregation.

GY: Well, right, this is the very useful elision of the conservatives and the right, is to use segregation as a foil for racism, and to say that racism is now finished because segregation is finished. At the moment, on that day, A. Philip Randolph said, “Of course we want equality, but gaining entry to these establishments will do us little good if we do not have the money to buy anything there.” And so the end of segregation—which was a major achievement, which should not be undermined or undersold—it meant the end of the most explicit form of racism that could exist, but it didn’t mean the end of racism, and King never, ever thought it did.


Janine Jackson: King’s legacy has been instrumentalized toward a number of ends; pundits have argued that he would have supported wars in regions around the world…. But the most popular conservative appropriation might be that—because he said people should be judged by the content of their character—King would have opposed affirmative action.

Despite the evident weakness of the idea that the person who called for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power” was opposed to affirmative action, it’s been tossed out for years by the likes of David Horowitz and Charles Krauthammer as proof that King was in fact a conservative. An early observer of the phenomenon, Paul Rockwell, noted that when Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster signed an executive order abolishing affirmative action, he presented that as the fulfillment of King’s dream.

Oh, you say, but that was back in 1995—but, nope, it’s 2017,  and the Washington Post editorial headline reads: “Martin Luther King Jr. Was a True Conservative.” And that’s because

in his way, Dr. King did a lot to preserve, protect and defend the best of our principles and values. Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was despised by many conservatives of his day, helped keep American society from succumbing to the radical ideologies that brought death and devastation to much of Europe and Asia, Dr. King worked to turn back extremism, violence and racial nationalism at the height of the civil rights movement, and to keep the cause of essential and long-overdue change in the American mainstream.

As FAIR analyst Adam Johnson noted, the Post‘s false dichotomy—in which King, or their version of him, represents the “good” left, unmoved by racial nationalism and Marxist ideology—is just the same tired take, erasing the King that said in 1961, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

Conservatives eager to present King as one of their own would have some difficulty, in any event, squaring that with how conservatives viewed him in his time. We talked about that with Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Here he is talking with CounterSpin‘s Steve Rendall, who asked him how Martin Luther King was seen by conservatives.


Rick Perlstein (photo: Simon & Schuster)

Rick Perlstein: “Conservatives reinterpreted that to mean that…anyone who breaks a law, you can lay to the responsibility of Martin Luther King.” (photo: Simon & Schuster)

Rick Perlstein: They hated him. Basically, Martin Luther King’s fundamental idea was that some laws are so unjust that we should disobey them and risk the consequences and absorb the blows with love and kindness. And conservatives reinterpreted that to mean that if you don’t like a law, you don’t have to obey it, so anyone who breaks a law, you can lay to the responsibility of Martin Luther King, who told people to be lawless.

And there were some pretty stunning examples of that. Even to the extent that people almost blamed him for his own assassination. Ronald Reagan said that this is just the sort of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they break.” And basically saying, well, if you say that people should be civilly disobedient, well, maybe that’s what James Earl Ray was doing.

Steve Rendall: Well, just to be clear, the supposed liberal media was not exactly friendly to King, either, much of the time. Give us a couple of examples of that, if you will, as I know you recounted them.

RP: Yeah. Well, the New York Times, when King was in Birmingham in 1963, which is really the touchstone of the real veneration of King. I mean, he won the Nobel Prize, basically, for his crusade in Birmingham.

SR: And his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” included that argument for civil disobedience.

RP: That’s right. And one of the people he was tacitly responding to was institutions like the New York Times, who said, well, there’s a new mayor coming in in Birmingham, and we should give him a chance to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish in civil disobedience, through the normal bureaucratic administrative channels, and why are you being so impatient? And in fact, he called his book on the Birmingham crusade Why We Can’t Wait. The liberals were the people who said, basically, you should wait, you should be more patient.


Janine Jackson: The Washington Post, for its part, sniffed, after King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people,” while Life magazine called it “a script for Radio Hanoi.” Liberal media have, in their own way, been as vigorous as the right in their reinventions.

Even the love of King is sometimes problematic, as in 2013, when CBS’s Bob Schieffer basically used him as a stick to beat Edward Snowden with:

Some of the people I admire most took on the government—men and women who led the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. They are true heroes. I’m not ready to put Edward Snowden in that category.

Schieffer went on to add: “The people who led the civil rights movement were willing to break the law and suffer the consequences,” making you wonder what criteria exactly he’s working with.

It was liberals like the New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd who took issue with the movie Selma, suggesting it misrepresented the history and the heroes of the civil rights movement. We talked with FAIR’s own Jim Naureckas about the backlash.


Jim Naureckas (cc photo: June Naureckas)

Jim Naureckas: “There’s a real discomfort with the idea that the white, powerful and—notably—liberal authority figure is not the moral center of the story, that he has something to learn from Martin Luther King.” (cc photo: June Naureckas)

Jim Naureckas: It started out with some people closely associated with Lyndon Johnson. The director of the LBJ Presidential Library was upset because the film depicted the relationship between LBJ and Martin Luther King as “contentious.” And then Joseph Califano, who was a top domestic advisor to Johnson, said in the Washington Post that it “falsely portrays Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King.” From there it went on to a number of pundits who chimed in. For example, Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist, denounced the film as “a lie that tarnishes Johnson’s legacy to exalt King’s.”

Janine Jackson: Richard Cohen, not known for his famous trumpeting of African-American rights. Well, it’s not a documentary, to be clear; it’s a fictional film, right? But still, what about this problem that it misrepresents the relationship between LBJ and Martin Luther King?

JN: Well, the film does take some liberties with the chronology of things. But if you were to see the film and then to read these op-eds, you would get a more accurate depiction of history from the fictional film than from the supposedly factual op-eds.

For example, the idea that the relationship between Johnson and King was not contentious, and that King and Johnson were not at odds, is belied by the actual tapes that were made by Johnson in the White House. There’s one tape where he is talking to Bill Moyers, who was an aide as well, and Johnson says of King, “He better get to behaving himself or all of them are going to be put in jail.” Well, that sounds pretty contentious.

What he’s upset about is the fact that there were sit-ins at the Justice Department and the White House protesting the fact that the federal government was not doing anything to protect marchers who were trying to go from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights. And you have to wonder, if the relationship between Johnson and King was so harmonious, why are civil rights activists sitting in at the White House?

JJ: Hoover was his guy as well, right?

JN: Right. Hoover was the chief of the FBI under Johnson, and Johnson reaffirmed his place there. In the film, Hoover is depicted as sending sex tapes to Coretta Scott King in an effort to discredit him. The critics have been very upset that the movie implies, but doesn’t really say, that this was Johnson’s idea.

The actual historical record shows that when Hoover’s FBI sent particularly incriminating tapes to the White House, they were seen by Johnson’s top aide. This is Walter Jenkins, his closest aide for like 25 years. In a memo to Hoover from one of Hoover’s aides, it says, “Jenkins was of the opinion that the FBI could perform a good service to the country if this matter could somehow be confidentially given to members of the press.” So the idea that Johnson was willing to use incriminating information about King against him is not made up by the filmmakers of Selma; it’s part of the historical record.

MLK (David Oyelowo) and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) in Selma.

MLK (David Oyelowo) and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) face off in Selma.

JJ: Well, it isn’t, in your view, just that these critics are getting the history of the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King wrong. You think they’re getting the movie wrong in a way, too, that it’s really — it’s not about smearing Johnson really at all.

JN: Yeah. I think that there’s an expectation from Johnson’s associates that this movie should be a celebration of Johnson, with him as the hero of the civil rights movement. And by making the character of Johnson — he’s not an unsympathetic character, he’s not an opponent of civil rights. He’s someone who is telling Martin Luther King that the time is not right just then for a Voting Rights Act, that they ought to wait, which is actually what the historical Lyndon Johnson actually said to the historical Martin Luther King. He said, “I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get voting rights through in this session of Congress.”

And the movie is really the story of how King, through the civil rights movement, through demonstrating the nastiness of racist violence in the South, captured the national attention and convinced Lyndon Johnson that this was, in fact, the time to have a Voting Rights Act that would give blacks the political power that would enable them to get justice when they were subject to violence.

JJ: Well, and on that point, the film Selma was made before Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, before the whole Black Lives Matter movement. But it sort of feels like some people may be finding contention in any expression that doesn’t pose white people, essentially, as the solution for black people’s problems, or that locates agency outside of traditional power sources. Do you think at all that some of that’s going on?

JN: I do. I feel like there’s a real discomfort with the idea that the white, powerful and—notably—liberal authority figure is not the moral center of the story, that he has something to learn from Martin Luther King, that Martin Luther King is showing him the urgency of doing something about racism and racist power. And at a time when there are African-Americans in the streets again calling on the people of America to do something about racist violence, it is striking how much hostility this film has gotten.


Janine Jackson: On the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Time magazine ran a big glossy interactive feature, which nevertheless didn’t change the fact that the magazine had no black correspondents. Corporate media would like to be judged by their professed intentions when it comes to racial justice—but action, and inaction, speak more truly.

For example, the Movement for Black Lives announced a week of events under the rubric Resist and Reclaim MLK. Explicitly inspired by the Poor People’s Campaign King was working on at the time of his murder, the campaign linked King’s work with current struggles around Islamophobia, deportation, environmental defense, labor, gender justice, and student and youth issues. A press corps interested in exploring King’s actual ideas or legacy would have devoted more than the near-zero attention that that campaign received.

The treatment of present day protest was the topic last October with Brandi Collins from Color of Change. We talked about—speaking of J. Edgar Hoover—the fact that activism happens on social media that are vulnerable to surveillance and obstruction by the state.


Brandi Collins

Brandi Collins: “They say things like, well, if Martin Luther King was alive today, he would never stand for this. And conveniently forget that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive, he was called by the FBI..one of the biggest threats to our country.”

Brandi Collins: We actually have a number of campaigns right now that we’re running around Facebook and Twitter and their relationship with these companies. And one of the things that’s recently been turned up by ACLU in Northern California, who we’ve been working with, is that Twitter has had a partnership with Geofeedia. We also—one of our FOIA requests that came in reaffirmed that they have a relationship with Media Solar. But these companies market themselves as being able to target, track and give law enforcement information about activists based on their social media accounts, and touting the relationship that they have with Twitter and Facebook.

It never ceases to fascinate me how we have leaders in Mark Zuckerberg and in Jack Dorsey who constantly go out and talk about how much they care about the Movement for Black Lives. We know that this 21st century movement has in some ways been powered by these platforms, and they know that as well. And so they continue to benefit off of black pain, as one would say, without actually doing anything to prevent black folks from being targeted by law enforcement, and in fact having a relationship to make that easier. Or doing anything about, for example, the online bullying that many of these activists also endure, which is another issue we’ve been working on.

JJ: It wasn’t a coincidence that the lawsuit that Color of Change and CCR filed about FBI and Homeland Security surveillance, that that came on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party. There are certainly analogs, of course, between the Panthers and the Movement for Black Lives, but there’s also this thing called COINTELPRO, and it seems as though it’s almost an unbroken legacy. I wonder, what would you tell listeners, or have listeners know, about the connections between history and today?

BC: Interestingly, I’ve been reading this book News for All the People, written by Juan Gonzalez and Joe Torres. And one of the things they talk about in the book was that when Fred Hampton was being assassinated—and a lot of research has shown now that the police and the FBI were working hand in hand to target him, and that it was in fact an assassination by the government against a leader in the Black Panther Movement—they actually worked with AT&T to cut off all the phone lines, so that nobody was able to call in or out of the house before they went in. And, in fact, that became a moment which led to the discovery of COINTELPRO. And once the government was called out and publicly shamed about this, they, quote unquote, “dismantled the program.”

But I feel like what we’re seeing right now, and the level of surveillance, how that’s being used, some of the technologies—for example, facial recognition technology is another thing that we FOIA’d and looked into, and it turns out that 80 percent of the people in the FBI’s facial recognition database don’t even have a criminal record or any interaction with the law. It’s disproportionately targeted and used and deployed in black communities. And it also is not good enough technology to accurately identify black folks, so they misidentify black folks at a significantly higher rate than other groups.

And so when you look at all of this, and you see all the ways in which technology is coming together, and this line between mass and targeted surveillance is being erased, particularly as it pertains to communities of color, what you see is actually scarier than what was happening in COINTELPRO. There’s a clear through-line in how the government continues to act and chill movements for justice, but I think where we’re heading now is something that could be even worse than what was experienced 50 years ago. And so we filed the lawsuit at this time, not just to remind people of where we were, but also what could be coming on the horizon if we don’t act now.

JJ: It’s very important to say, when you look at the documents, you see law enforcement referring to activists as “threat actors,” you know, and these terms that are very much associated with terrorism. And when it’s Martin Luther King Day, everyone talks about protest, and it’s this American value, your ability to protest and to speak your mind. When people actually do it, we get a different kind of vibe, and what we’re seeing it seems is this conflation of protest—  legal, peaceful protest—with crime and with terrorism. We can see that from law enforcement, but I worry when we also see that in kind of the public conversation, the idea that it’s OK to monitor protests because they are somehow threatening, inherently.

And that seems to me like this core conflict about what do we really value? Everyone says they love the First Amendment, just don’t try to exercise it, it seems.

BC: Right. It’s fascinating, right? Because even when we talk about — it’s so interesting to hear people talk about MLK today with this level of reverence, and they say things like, well, if Martin Luther King was alive today, he would never stand for this. And conveniently forget that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive, he was called by the FBI, you know, the most dangerous man in America, or one of the biggest threats to our country. And that’s how he was treated. And he had a huge file on him, as did Cesar Chavez, as did a number of people in the environmental justice movement and the Second Wave of feminism.

So what we’ve seen throughout history is the role that the media has played when convenient in forwarding a police PR narrative that reinforces the need for surveillance in our community and conflates safety with surveillance, in ways that I think everybody should find alarming. And so you take a movement, now, the Movement for Black Lives has been very clear that they are for freedom, that what they are talking about has nothing to do with killing police or terrorizing our community, and yet the fact that police officers across the country are being trained to see these activists as terrorist threats speaks volumes.


Janine Jackson: That was Brandi Collins from Color of Change. Before that, you heard FAIR’s Jim Naureckas, author Rick Perlstein and author/correspondent Gary Younge.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.