For the 69th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to Brandon Storlie about problematic news coverage of the July 1967 riot in Detroit, one of the most violent race-related conflicts in recent American history.
Brandon Storlie is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of “‘We’ll Burn the Whole Stinking Town Down’: Newspaper Coverage of Detroit’s Twelfth Street Riot” in the December 2020 issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Brandon Storlie (00:00): Everything that we’re talking about now in 2020, in terms of what’s wrong with the system with regard to race, is stuff that the Kerner Commission unearthed 50 years ago.
Teri Finneman (00:11):
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman (00:20):
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics
Nick Hirshon (00:26):
And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward (00:30):
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman (00:35):
And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
In this episode, we explore the July 1967 riot in Detroit, one of the most violent race-related conflicts in recent American history. The riot resulted in 43 deaths over five days of violence, property damage, and looting. Our guests today, graduate student Brandon Storlie of the University of Wisconsin Madison, discusses media coverage of this event and how reporters’ marginalizing word choices helped cement existing racial divisions and shaped how newsrooms, and the American public, would understand racial violence for years to come.
Brandon, welcome to the show. What interested you in studying newspaper coverage of Detroit’s 12th Street Riot?
Brandon Storlie (01:40):
Yeah, thanks for having me. Originally, this paper started as a seminar paper, in 2017 actually. So, it’s suddenly become a little bit more relevant as, as the, the article itself has come out. But the interesting thing that really interested me about, about Detroit, as a case study, I had wanted to do the entire summer of 1967 to begin with, to sort of draw larger conclusions. But Detroit just ended up being too big to combine with anything else. And the interesting thing for me was that Detroit in my eyes is really sort of representative of sort of the blue-collar Midwest stereotype in that, as far as public opinion goes, when the country’s doing well, Detroit was sort of lifted up as an example of what the American working class can do – be it the arsenal of democracy during the second World War or, you know, sort of Detroit power at the height of the auto industry, which was sort of happening at the same time, as the, the 12th Street Riot.
But then when the country’s down or the economy’s down, I think Detroit also sort of gets more of a bad rap. You know, I’m, I’m thinking more recently, with the downturn of the auto industry about a decade ago, Detroit sort of became a little bit of a national joke and so it really sort of represented to me, both, both the, the highs and the lows of the Midwest from a social standpoint. And so that was really a place that I wanted to look into more and see, specifically, what was going on at this period of time.
Teri Finneman (03:44):
Before we discuss this particular riot in 1967, give us some context of what race relations were like in Detroit in the decades before it.
Brandon Storlie (03:53):
So that depends largely on who you ask. There’s a history of racial unrest in the decades leading up to the 12th Street Riot in 1967. There was another race riot in 1943, but also, there were some long-held grievances on the part of Detroit’s black community. They complained to city officials that their neighborhoods were run down. There was a lot of redlining going on through the early to mid-twentieth century in Detroit, as there was in a lot of other places too. There were a lot of jobs lost to the suburbs. When the, when the automakers built new manufacturing plants, they put them in places like Pontiac and Flint and moved their headquarters to Auburn Hills, things like that. And so they, they took a lot of the jobs that working class jobs out of the city itself.
And so there was a lot of unemployment within Detroit proper. And then they also, the black community also, had some legitimate complaints about Detroit’s police force, in that it was predominantly white and there were actually surveys done in the mid-sixties that held something like — 34 percent of the police force held attitudes that were deemed to be prejudiced. And so there was a lot of, lot of racial strife going on in, in the years leading up to that. However, the white community, and some members of the black community too, particularly leadership, were quick to point out that the conditions in Detroit were better than they were in a lot of other cities. In the South, for example, it was an entirely different ballgame. And so a lot of people pointed to Detroit and said, “Hey, this is really a model of how we should treat people. This is a model for 1960s race relations,” things like that. And, that actually plays out in a story for the New York Times by Jerry Flint in the opening days of the riot. The officials in Detroit were completely taken by surprise that this was happening, because they thought that conditions within the city were relatively good. So again, it depends largely on who you ask just what those race relations were like in the lead-up.
Teri Finneman (06:37):
So what is it that sparked this riot in Detroit, in this particular neighborhood, and at this time?
Brandon Storlie (06:42):
So there was a police raid on a Sunday, July 23rd, 1967, in the early morning hours. It was a party at a business office on 12th Street for a couple of American soldiers that had come back from Vietnam. And basically what happened was the police — I get this sense that the police knew that it was happening, knew that the party was taking place, but there were a lot more people there than the police anticipated. They expected maybe a handful of people to show up, and they got to this thing, after hearing complaints about it, or just getting wind that it was very large — the details are still kind of fuzzy to this day — they got wind that it was very large, got into the business, and there were 82 people inside. And they decided that they were going to label this event
an unlicensed drinking establishment because it was in a business office and because there were so many people there, and they decided that they were going to arrest everyone in attendance. And a large crowd had formed outside of, outside of the building. And, eventually, the story goes that there was a bottle thrown at one of the police officers. And then the crowd took exception to the force with which the officers were handling the people that they were arresting. And so then it basically just deteriorated from there into a week’s worth of, of violence and property damage.
Teri Finneman (08:27):
So let’s talk about media coverage specifically. You also explore in your study how the media have historically framed racial unrest. So before we talk about this riot in particular, give us some of the background about how other events have been framed.
Brandon Storlie (08:45):
Well, I focused specifically on the nuance of word choice for this project. And that was something that other scholars have paid attention to for other events around this time. Nicole Maurantonio, for instance, did a study on Philadelphia, the Philadelphia riot in 1964. And what people have found, a couple of major things. The people at these events were characterized negatively. Words like hood Lowndes, vandals, urchins, things like that were used to describe them. They’re not citizens, they’re not people they’re not, you know, any, any normal term that we would use in any other circumstances. They’re always characterized negatively. And the events themselves are deemed to be irrational. The crowd is behaving hysterically, things of that nature. And you see that in Philadelphia, you see that in Watson 1965, and then up until 1967, 1968, you see the same sort of thing throughout, throughout that part of the decade.
The other issue that plays a big factor, I think, is that the language was heavily, heavily racialized. Whenever there was a crime being committed, race was always mentioned if the suspects were black. It was not always mentioned if the suspects were white, but if the suspects were black, the, the racial identifier was used. So a lot of times they’re using the word “Negro.” That was sort of the period where “Negro” was falling out of favor and “black” was, was sort of becoming the preferred term, but white newsrooms hadn’t really caught on to that yet. So, so yeah, the negative characterizations of people who are participating in these events and then also heavily racialized language.
Teri Finneman (10:52):
You studied media coverage of Detroit’s 12th Street Riot in the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times and the LA Times, and determined that reporters covering the violence in Detroit frequently employed wartime imagery and likened the city’s Black community to an enemy. Tell us more about what you specifically found in this coverage from each newspaper.
Brandon Storlie (11:17):
Well, there were definitely similarities in coverage across the board. All three papers, be it the local one in Detroit, the Free Press, or the two national ones, the LA Times or the New York Times, led with aspects of crime and violence. And they also employed the warfare frame. And when I’m talking about the warfare frame, I mean that these instances of crime and violence were depicted in a way that it was very much the black community on one side of the fight and the police or the National Guard on the other side of the fight. So it was, it was an armed conflict and that’s how it played out in these newspaper pages. Now, that was also combined with the idea that you do have the National Guard in here. And so there’s, there’s tanks and military weaponry that is free for reporters to describe.
And so they really, they led with tanks rolling down 12th Street. And when you’re talking about, you know, national guardsmen rooting out armed snipers on rooftops, that’s going to give audiences across the country a very colorful view of what’s going on here. The other issue was, that particularly in terms of, or in the case of, the New York Times and LA Times, the coverage from Detroit was sharing the front page with coverage from Vietnam. And so a lot of times, because “Negro” is a proper noun, you’re going to have two proper nouns on those pages. When we’re talking about riot coverage or war coverage, you’re going to have “Negro” and you’re going to have “Vietcong,” and so in a lot of ways, on these front pages in both New York and Los Angeles, you had a foreign enemy in Vietnam and you had a domestic enemy in Detroit, and that’s how those two things were juxtaposed on those pages.
Teri Finneman (13:36):
The Kerner Commission had some harsh words about media coverage after the 12th Street Riot. Tell us more about what this commission was and what they determined, and then if anything came of it.
Brandon Storlie (13:48):
Yeah, so the Kerner Commission was an eleven-person presidential commission that was called by Lyndon Johnson on July 28th of 1967, so what is considered the last official day of rioting in Detroit. And, it was chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, which is why it has the name that it has, and it found, basically, evidence of widespread systemic racism. The interesting thing is that everything that we’re talking about now in 2020, in terms of what’s wrong with the system with regard to race, is stuff that the Kerner Commission unearthed fifty years ago. With regard to media, a couple of key takeaways: It found that reporters sensationalized the riot coverage. In a lot of instances, these were really novel events for the reporters covering them, be it, you know, local reporters in Detroit, or reporters kind of parachuting in from other places.
Well, I guess the parachuting reporters, it wasn’t necessarily novel, but then also, the local bureau reporters that were working for wire services had never really seen violence and property damage to this level before. And so they sensationalized a lot of it. The other major issue that the Kerner Commission found was that there was really very little to no reporting on the systemic causes behind these riots. They were covered as if they just sprung up out of nowhere and had no cause whatsoever. They had no precipitating effects, or anything of that nature. But then the Kerner Commission also sort of gave reporters the benefit of the doubt. They said that none of this was done maliciously and they said that, you know, reporters had really done their best to cover this. So they’d made mistakes. But aside from that, the commission ruled that they had done a fairly decent job at covering this whole thing.
So you get mixed messages, particularly with regard to Detroit. Again, the overall takeaway from it was evidence of widespread systemic racism. And that was something, getting into what was done about it, that was something that really sort of rubbed Lyndon Johnson the wrong way. The commission had moved up the release date to the end of February. It was a leap year that year, so February 29th of ’68 is when this thing comes out. And they had intended to release it later in the spring, but had determined that their findings were significant enough that they should push it up. It was also leaked to the Washington Post before Johnson got wind of exactly what was in there. And so Johnson was not only taken aback by the fact that he’d been blindsided by it, but he was also personally insulted by the contents.
The idea that the country was racist, and that he was the head of it, really rubbed him the wrong way on a personal level. And so a couple of key factors also played in. Some estimates put the annual cost to implement all of the Kerner Commission’s recommendations at somewhere around $25 or $26 billion, which is something that Johnson figured he just did not have the money for given what was happening in Vietnam. And speaking of what was happening in Vietnam, this was also on the heels of the Tet Offensive. And so it was just one more thing that Johnson really didn’t want to have to deal with at that point in time. And so basically what happens is his cabinet, and his aides particularly, are telling him, you know, Mr. President, you have to do something about this. You have to say something about it.
They wrote a speech for him that he never gave and said, you know, if, if we ignore this, it’s going to be a mistake. And Johnson just decided to do exactly that, to ignore it. He made a couple of cursory remarks about it, just sort of acknowledging that it existed and it had come out, and then basically left it alone. And the combination of the Kerner report, the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, and everything else that was happening on the home front for Johnson with regard to his legacy, really sort of precipitated his decision the next month to say that he would decline the Democratic nomination for re-election in 1968. So this all sort of happened at the same time and helped to push that decision over the edge.
Teri Finneman (19:18):
In your study, you briefly touch on the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Decades later, was the media framing of that any different?
Brandon Storlie (19:28):
The short answer to that question is yes and no. I think as time goes on, there’s some evidence to suggest that there’s a better acknowledgment of history and causal factors, for, for riots like this, but that’s still a case-by-case sort of thing, even in ’92, and I would argue, even today as well, you see reporters going in depth a little bit to uncover the conditions in certain parts of these cities, be it Detroit in 1967, where that did happen, or, you know, South Central Los Angeles in 1992. There are reporters that go in there and actually do the work to sort of get at some of the causes. But the key there is that they don’t do it right away. In the opening days of the unrest in 1992, there’s still this immediate focus on, on the violence, and just the sheer magnitude of what’s happening there as an event.
And, if the examination of the causal factors comes, it comes later. It comes, you know, later in the week, two, three, four days out, to the point that people have already seen that breaking news coverage and they’ve already had a chance to sort of start to wrap their heads around what’s happening, and, you know, formulate opinions about the event itself. So it’s sort of, if it does come, it comes too little too late in a lot of ways. And I, I think you see that not only in 1992, but you also see that in, in a lot of the things that have been happening this summer and into the fall here in 2020.
Teri Finneman (21:30):
Yeah, so going off of that, you know, what are some other lessons that you think media outlets today can learn from your study and how they cover race and protests?
Brandon Storlie (21:40):
Well, I think there’s two major takeaways here. Reporters have to try to better understand the bigger picture and not be sidetracked by the in-the-moment newsworthiness of a particular event. And that’s difficult to do. It’s difficult to sort of go against that norm of newsworthiness a little bit, which I think is probably how it feels in a lot of ways. You know, you need to try and explain this and, and get the newsworthiness to audiences. But I think a lot of times that that larger context sort of gets left out and it, it gets sacrificed in the process. But I think another major issue here is a better understanding of power dynamics. In a lot of ways, some journalistic norms counteract each other. They go against each other. The idea that city officials, elected officials are generally a go-to source in these instances, sort of goes against objectivity in a way that — the, the pursuit of objectivity — because these people who are in positions of power already have more power than ordinary citizens.
And by putting them up higher in the story, toward the front of the story, by leading with them and their perspective, you’re giving them even more power as a journalist. And so that’s something major that I think would, it’s a, it’s a small fix when you’re, when you’re writing a story as a journalist, but I think it would make a fairly large impact in how these stories are perceived and how these protests then are perceived by the audience. The other thing that I’ve noticed is, you know, when we teach feature writing in journalism schools, these norms are already in place. The goal for a lot of, a lot of feature writing is to get out on the ground and tell personal stories, and really go in depth in a lot of ways. And there’s no reason that journalists can’t employ more of that when they’re covering protest events, when they’re covering violent protests, when they’re covering riots, things like that. Get on the ground and actually talk to the people involved, and try to figure out why they’re there and how these things play into again, that, that larger context that so often gets missed.
Teri Finneman (24:34):
And our final question of the show is why does journalism history matter?
Brandon Storlie (24:40):
Oh, man. In this case, I, what was it that, that Faulkner said? “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The idea that, particularly when we’re talking about riots and protests, coverage, this stuff, it’s not an issue of history. It’s an issue of right now. And so in this particular case, looking at the mistakes that journalists have made over the last few decades, to ensure that we stop making them as journalists, it is a huge deal. But I think more broadly, when you talk about journalism history, the idea that, you know, it’s the idea that this isn’t some far off time that we’re talking about. When we’re talking about journalism history in the context of America, we’re talking a matter of a few lifetimes. And so I think it’s really important to understand — in order to understand where we are now, to understand what got us here. And so I think more so now than ever, arguably, history and journalism history are vital to understanding our lives today.
Teri Finneman (26:10):
Okay. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.
Brandon Storlie (26:14):
Yeah, thank you.
Teri Finneman (26:16):
Thanks for tuning in and be sure to follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. If you like our podcast, leave us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”