McCaffrey Q&A: Sports, race, and media evolution

Raymond McCaffrey (University of Arkansas) is the author of “Barry H. Gottehrer and a ‘City in Crisis’: The Path from Journalist to Peacekeeper in New York City’s Turbulent Streets in the 1960s” (Journalism History, Fall 2018). In the below Q&A, McCaffrey discusses the many facets to his research on sports and media in 1960s New York as well as the parallels between that era and today—particularly in terms of racial tensions and media evolution. — Erika Pribanic-Smith

How did you become interested Barry Gottehrer as a research topic?

I stumbled onto Gottehrer. Before I went back to school, while working at the Washington Post, I had a germ in my mind of doing a book on 1960s New York and the intersection of sports and media. It was the Golden Age of sports in New York but also a time when a lot of new media started. “Happy talk TV” was pioneered in New York at the time.

The late ’60s had a lot of historical events. Reading about the era, the protest at Madison Square Garden stood out. Gottehrer shows up as a peacekeeper for the mayor, trying to get the crowds settled down. I didn’t think much of it, but I continued to read about these events. The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, there was a lot of rioting throughout the country, but New York was relatively quiet. Gottehrer shows up at the fringes keeping things in control.

I wondered who he was. It turned out he was a former journalist who had won a Polk Award for a series that had caused the previous mayor not to run for reelection. John Lindsay was elected mayor. Lindsay was something we don’t have anymore: a liberal Republican. He was a very charismatic, Kennedy-esque kind of guy without being a Democrat.

I kept digging into Gottehrer and took the leap from him being a fringe character into exploring how a journalist suddenly becomes thrust in the middle of all these events. We know about journalists who go into service as spokesmen and sometimes cross back (Bill Moyers, Dianne Sawyer, etc.).

What Gottehrer did was something different. He basically had a command center. He had outreach to all the different locations in New York and the five Burroughs. He approached it as a reporter. He went out to bars to hang out with revolutionary leaders. He knew who they were and what their needs were—Black Panthers and what have you.

I thought it at least was worth a separate paper.

 

Are you still pursuing the original idea?

I’m still pursuing sports in New York. When I first thought of it, I wasn’t involved in academia at all. I had a year before I decided to transition into the Ph.D. program at Maryland, and I worked on it all the time.

As I sat at orientation for graduate school, it was very exciting, but I thought, “I won’t be able to do the book right now.” I flirted with it for half a second as the dissertation, but what I had in mind was not that kind of form. I put it aside.

I thought, why not explore the characters I encountered in different ways? I presented at AEJMC this summer on Jackie Robinson. I discovered going through ProQuest that he wrote a newspaper column for the African-American press. He wrote it for the New York Amsterdam News with syndicates all over the country. Just as a character in that kind of story—what an interesting voice. That’s someone I can place in that era.

I discovered through reading the column and press accounts about Robinson that he had become a controversial figure. Robinson was accused of being an Uncle Tom; he supported Nixon in the election. He testified against things Paul Robeson said when he was before the House Un-American Committee. In his columns he became a very radical guy. He was in favor of boycotting the Olympics.

I put it within the context of what’s going on today with athletes. On Jackie Robinson Day (the day he broke the color line), Colin Kaepernick tweeted a quote from Robinson that he felt like he could no longer stand for the national anthem. Here’s a public image, and here’s what you can find out if you dig deeper.

I’m fascinated with Ali, 1966-70. He spent a lot of time in New York and really adeptly used the media to keep his name in the news when he was exiled from boxing. There’s another paper I think I could make.

I end up learning a lot about these characters; maybe I wouldn’t have taken the time if I had just done the sports book the way I originally wanted to.

 

What parallels do you see between the racial tensions of the 1960s and today?

The Robinson article was a good way to explore this. At the same time, I looked at what scholars have written about and researched about the role of civil rights and sports. It began during Reconstruction. There was an African-American baseball team that played a white team in Philly just after Reconstruction. It went nowhere, but there were athletes breaking new ground.

Jack Johnson was the seminal figure; he was the first black heavyweight champion in the early 20th century. Trump just pardoned him. He was a controversial figure simply because as a black man he decided he was going to live his life the way he wanted to. People did not want him to be the heavyweight champion. He was arrested for violating the Mann Act because he crossed state lines with a white woman.

Really by his presence, he changed the landscape. There’s a movie about him, The Great White Hope. There was nothing conciliatory about him. He really was not accepted as a kind of figure who would assimilate into society. He was fine with that.

In the 10-20 years after him, there were great athletes who also took the opposite approach and were accepted by white society: Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the “Hitler Olympics”; Joe Louis became an American hero for beating a German fighter; Jackie Robinson. The first year Robinson played, he was asked by the head of the Dodgers to turn the other cheek when people taunted him. He did that, and he kind of was applauded. The idea was, “Don’t make waves and you’ll find a place.”

Obviously by the ’60s, the opposite tack was taken. You had the rise of John Carlos, Tommy Smith, and most prominently Ali, who refused induction into the military for religious reasons. There were new ways to protest things.

St. Louis Cardinal player Curt Flood filed a lawsuit that eventually ended the reserve clause, meaning if you signed with one team, you couldn’t sign with others. It was compared to slavery. In time, salaries went up; it became a real lucrative industry.

You get to the point where people like Michael Jordan and a little later Tiger Woods were getting criticism for not speaking out about anything. In the 21st century, individual athletes may say stuff, but for the most part, there’s not a whole lot of comment on civil rights. Kaepernick become the poster child, maybe by dint of social media, but it’s changing quite a bit. People have gotten more active.

We’re back kind of to a point where people are speaking out. If you go beyond the history itself with people who have done research with public memory, the images of athletes have kind of been appropriated. The way we remember them is a result of socioeconomic forces of the time. It was an odd sort of irony when Trump portrayed Johnson as a victim. He never was a victim. What I’m saying is what scholars have said: He’s being used, and his image is being appropriated.

The very next day, the NFL bans anthem protest after Trump had basically demonized Kaepernick in such a way that he was being depicted the same way Johnson was when he was alive.

It’s a very interesting time. It’s not a matter of pro-Trump or anti-Trump. What we have again is some very prominent athletes starting to speak out about things, especially incidents of violence by police against African Americans. Things are becoming highly politicized. The advent of social media had a big effect.

But, you can’t diminish the importance of journalists in helping this along. In the 1960s, one of the reasons why the athletes got a bigger and bigger voice is the new generation of sports writers who were paying attention to this. An AJHA member presented about this at the recent conference; a reporter would call Ali “Ali” while his colleagues called him Cassius Clay. Journalists were part of this branding effort. Now, you can just go out and tweet.

 

How did the racial tensions of the 1960s affect Gottehrer and Lindsay?

It was kind of a genesis for Lindsay and Gottehrer doing something. They got a call about an awful outbreak of violence between police and citizens in an African-American neighborhood. They had no idea where it was; it was not one of your standard neighborhoods. It was a communication problem. They didn’t know where these places were. They had no citizens, no representatives who could come to them with their problems. Instead of being proactive, it was reactive.

Gottehrer went out and created these zones. He had people who could come to him when there were problems but also to get funding for youth programs or jobs. It was not police terrain, but when there would be an incident, there was a clash between Gottehrer and police. When there’s trouble, police said Gottehrer needed to get out of the way, but Gottehrer said there were representatives who could help out.

What made it more controversial, he made contacts with people who you probably wouldn’t hire to have a job with the city, but they were very well connected in these neighborhoods. One who had helped on the night King was shot had been in a state hospital, but he became the leader of a very powerful group in Harlem. The night Martin Luther King was shot, this guy and his group shut down violence when Lindsay was out there.

Gottehrer also got in the middle of things. There was an incident when police cracked down on the Black Panthers; their leader was beaten pretty badly. Gottehrer had to negotiate a way to get out of this and still have connections in the community. Eventually, probably fittingly but also ironically, when he left that job, he was replaced by a cop. They went back into a more law enforcement way of doing things.

With current events, I don’t know the full story about all of them, but the one thing that seems to come up, there’s not a Barry Gottehrer out there. A clear line is drawn in many of these cases between the police and the community and even the government and the community. I was just watching coverage of all these New York cops and people talking about the bombs in New York. The lines are still pretty drawn.

 

One thing you bring up in your article is how newspapers were dying in the 1960s with the rise of television. Can you talk more about that?

One of the very interesting things about that time period is that in New York City, when I talk about the period of 1966-69, there was a revolutionary shift in media. Essentially the New York Herald Tribune, that Gottehrer worked for, was the last of the old merged newspapers. New York went through the same kind of evolution that a lot of places went through. Papers would merge. Some would have the names of two or three former newspapers.

There were some pretty famous newspaper strikes. Whatever the reasons—the rise of TV, the demise of the afternoon newspaper, all these sort of things—there was a Darwinian reaction in New York. When the smoke cleared, there were two tabloids (the Daily News and Post) and the New York Times.

They’re still there today. The newspaper landscape cemented. And then you had the rise of local TV. A guy named Al Primo came to ABC-TV in New York and started eyewitness news. That’s the place it was done more prominently but not the first place. It was decreed as “happy talk.” It was the end of the white male anchor. Suddenly, a diverse group of people were on TV.

In New York, that meant a very diverse group of reporters. Local TV became very important in the late ’60s protest movements. They would say if TV wasn’t going to show up, people weren’t going to have the protest. One of the earliest reporters of eyewitness news was Geraldo Rivera. Some became big stars.

New technology played a big role. I remember when we got our first color TV. It was unbelievable if you liked sports like I did. I think in ’67 or ’68 was when the number of color TVs in the US shifted from a minority to a majority.

In a place like New York, you no longer had dad coming home with the evening newspaper. Everyone already was watching the evening news.

Somewhat simplistically, you can translate that shift to how things are changing today. I think the change in the media has affected how people can express themselves, particularly athletes. We go from the late ’60s to the ’80s with cable, CNN becomes the big event.

You could see in the writing, when baseball player Tom Seeger (New York Mets) pitched a one-hitter in a legendary baseball game. You look at accounts in the New York Times and tabloids, they were not covering the game but covering TV covering the game. It was a revolutionary shift.

Now with social media, if you look at accounts by journalists—and I think sports writers more so really than anybody else—they would start complaining they’re no longer the first stop.

I just did a review on a book about Babe Ruth, all about the powerful role print journalism had in controlling his image for the benefit of baseball honors. You get to the late ’60s/early ’70s, TV is really starting to take over. Baseball writers are somewhat important, but then cable TV comes in and particularly ESPN for sports. People aren’t reading your column or caring about the paper anymore. They want to be on SportsCenter.

Now the phenomenon I read about, if you can control things yourself through social media, why not? I was a reporter when the Internet started to take off and people wouldn’t answer my questions; they’d tell me, “It’s on my website.” I’d say, “I know, but I want to ask follow-up questions.”

You see it now with Trump, how he can really control a news cycle. I did some research projects with grad students who take my ethics class. We did a paper we’re going to present at a regional conference about how negative tweets from Trump become news stories through the lens of agenda setting.

I think you could say the same of any news maker adeptly using social media, certainly with the athletes. They are driving the story. From their standpoint, that’s how they feel it should be.

I still think the traditional media plays a great role, and certainly if you look at political coverage—you look at CNN and MSNBC and Fox News—it’s still the Times and the Post generating what’s on the crawl. They have a powerful role; it’s just a different role and kind of a mediated role.

 

How would you describe your role as a journalism historian?

What I would say is that I love to do history. I always have loved reading history, but I never thought I would be doing history.

When I first went back to grad school, I was still working as a reporter. I was out in Colorado Springs and got a master’s in clinical psychology. My undergraduate degree was in psychology. That experience suggested to me that research was quantitative. You go out and get data.

When I went to Maryland for my Ph.D., I still felt I was going to do quantitative research, maybe survey journalists on mental health issues. I fell into cahoots with a bunch of historians; Maurine Beasley was one of them. How could you want to do anything else?

The course I took that really got me was with Ira Chinoy, a former reporter and part of two Pulitzer-winning teams. He also won the AJHA dissertation award. Mark Feldstein was there, too. These were people I liked and respected. I thought I could map my interests from a different perspective. The more I do it, the more natural it feels.

I did a lot of profile writing when I was a reporter. I approach history the same way. It’s really a mystery. Who was that woman? Who was that guy?

I’ve also found that historians, whether at AJHA or AEJMC History Division, are incredibly supportive people. That makes a difference. Even in reading the reviews, when submitting a paper to a journal or a conference, the reviewers largely are constructive. Even if they’re rejecting it, there’s no snarkiness. It’s supportive like the good editors I’ve worked with.

I still do other work and still am interested in other kinds of work. After the last AJHA conference, just hearing the talk about trying to bring grad students into history, I immediately came back and switched gears with grad students to do a history project, to let them know what it’s all about and that there is such a supportive community.

 

Earlier you said you thought about doing the New York sports book as your dissertation but did not. What did you do your dissertation on?

I was interested in trauma and journalists but also this kind of code that journalists follow. There’s an ethics code that tells you to be fair, etc., but most journalists I know follow a different code, which is about taking risks and holding people to truth.

I’d seen an American Journalism Review story after 9/11 about how they sent mental health workers to Ground Zero. There was no problem with first responders, but journalists couldn’t talk about it because it would violate the newsroom ethos. So, I did an historical study on how this ethos was generated. I looked at coverage of journalists who died in the line of duty and built a database of U.S. journalists, which I defined as journalists who were U.S. born or who worked for U.S. publications. The list will include the journalist killed over in Turkey recently.

I looked at all the coverage of them in the New York Times. Only three were killed before the Times started. I explored the coverage from the standpoint of myth; were they perpetuating the hero myth? When was it prominent? When did it wane? During the Vietnam War, you had an anti-hero myth. Then after 9/11, we’re back to the myth of journalist as hero.

It’s kind of the other part of what I’m doing. That was actually my research in progress at this year’s AJHA, taking a dive into photojournalists and beefing up my approach. I look at it as an historical case study but doing a lot of textual analysis. I’m looking to make it more bulletproof for reviewers, especially the people into methodology. I’m reading Stuart Hall and more people who have done myth studies. I’m deconstructing what I did in the dissertation and trying to put it back together.

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