Monday, February 6, 2017

Thomas J. Hrach's "The Riot Report and the News"

Thomas J. Hrach is associate professor of journalism at the University of Memphis.

Here he dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission Changed Media Coverage of Black America:
When I wrote The Riot Report and the News, I tried to focus on the characters that made the history of the Kerner Commission. The commission was an 11-member group appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to study the causes of the riots in American cities. While there many people involved in the story of the commission, no one character stood out more than Otto Kerner, the namesake of the commission and governor of Illinois. The goal of the book was to give some love and credit to Kerner for being a major figure in the history of journalism even though he was never a reporter, editor, TV executive nor had anything to do with the news media.

Kerner never got his due in history mostly because his time in public office was marred by a scandal that ultimately led him into prison. But as history now shows, the prosecution likely was politically motivated and Kerner was punished for a crime that was later determined to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was his own worst enemy for sure by never acknowledging any wrongdoing, refusing to accept any blame and ultimately failing to mount a proper defense.

But my story about Kerner covers the period before he got into legal trouble. It was the time in his life when he rose to great fame and respect, even though he likely had already sowed the seeds of demise. So who would play this complicated character in a film? He was sometimes portrayed as having movie star good looks. He was once voted by the news media as the nation’s most handsome governor. He was always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. His former press secretary said he dressed like a banker, often much more formally than the situation dictated. George Clooney, Paul Giamatti or Colin Firth would do the job. They certainly look the part – middle aged white men able to project an air authority and aloofness.

The key to playing the role would be showing an outward toughness while still displaying a compassion for those downtrodden. After all, Kerner was a former prosecutor who had a soft spot for the poor and minorities. While Kerner never experienced a day in poverty or oppression, he came from an immigrant family that likely passed down that experience to him. Kerner’s ancestors came to Chicago in the late 1800s as immigrants from Bohemia, and they all had a bit of chip on their shoulder.

Another key to the role would be a fierce loyalty. After all, Kerner showed loyalty to the man who appointed him the commission, President Johnson. And even though Johnson privately rejected the report and never got around to sending Kerner even a thanks for it, Kerner stayed loyal. He never criticized the president, and even made excuses for the president’s lack of action on the Kerner commission recommendations.

Alas, Kerner’s life ended early, dying of cancer in 1976 at the age of 65. He was let out of prison early only because of his poor health. So whoever plays the man in film would have to be able to play the part of a man beaten down by scandal and disease. But even though his life ended so tragically, he got one more moment of fame when the news reporters of Chicago feted him at an event called a “Newsman’s Testimonial to Otto Kerner,” which was conducted just months before he passed. That event was a final recognition for his contributions to the history of journalism.
Learn more about The Riot Report and the News at the University of Massachusetts Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Riot Report and the News.

--Marshal Zeringue