Busing and The Press


TODAY AFTER two weeks of forced busing in Boston, even if the tide of strident opposition to Judge W.A. Garrity's order has not subsided, the initial wave of press coverage that swamped the city with banner headlines has at least ebbed to the bottom of the front page. Boston's daily press published a chronicle of its reaction to the issue on its own pages over the last 14 days, and the record shows a "fourth estate" involved too deeply in a sea of consequences it claimed to report.

From the first day of busing, it was apparent that the press was itself caught up in the conflict. In the impromptu battle lines that surging throngs of racist youths and clumsy battalions of mounted police thrashed out on G Street in front of South Boston High School on September 12, the huge corps of journalists had to pick a side, and it ended up behind the protection of the police.

On the other side of the lines, many busing opponents on Sixth Street said they blamed the liberal press for the state of affairs. After all, it was the press, they said, that had made busing a momentous issue initially, that had upheld the silly semantic delusion that "integration"--which some claimed they supported--meant "busing," and that was now invading their insular community in a horde, all wearing ties and jackets and toting pads or cameras.

So it was that an innocent reporter who had sought comments from citizens was surrounded by an angry mob that made the press and not Southie the center of debate, and a photographer who squeezed past demonstrators to get a shot of Louise Day Hicks was thrown across the hood of a car and mauled viciously. (As he hobbled back to safety, that photographer asked his colleague, "Do you think we can get injury compensation?")

Last Friday night, an anti-busing demonstration on Paul Morrissey Boulevard centered on The Boston Globe plant. The protesters claimed unfair coverage and blocked the exit of Globe delivery trucks.

Thomas Winship, editor of The Globe, acknowledged the significance of press accounts by issuing a directive to all reporters before the Garrity order went into effect. The memo largely instructed journalists to keep level heads and to make special efforts to report the news fairly. It said, for instance, that headlines, which "many of our readers will not get beyond," should be written with "delicacy."

But the statement, written in a didactic tone, also urged reporters to "stay inconspicuous," and to "stand back from outbreaks," so as not to participate in the events and to avoid injury. And it said, "We take notes about forecasts of violence, but print none of them."

The Globe thus viewed itself as a responsible party in the busing feud, and its editors shed the pretense of pursuing truth when they agreed to suppress some aspects of the news. Because forecasts of violence might be reckless or drunken prophecies from self-appointed augurs, they are perhaps not news and should not be printed anyway, but the Winship mandate betrays a self-important attitude maintained by the fourth estate over this two-week period, that it must support the state in its efforts to integrate.

THIS SHOWED UP in the initial coverage by The Boston Globe and The Herald American. The headlines on the first evening and the following day asserted that "calm prevails" and the stories buried the fact that mob disruptions had marked the day at Southie High. Meanwhile in The New York Times the next day, John Kifner--who perhaps benefited from the detachment he enjoyed as an outsider--wrote a powerful article that led with the fact that violence marred the opening of schools.

(A bolder critic might link the Boston staffers' pussyfooting to their own insecurity as involved parties as to whether they might get their heads busted by flying bricks. By such analysis, reporters who were cast in Southie as antagonists subconsciously attempted to subvert the attacks on themselves by underplaying the violence in stories.)

Robert H. Phelps, assistant managing editor for news, said earlier this week that The Globe did not kill any news stories on the issue. But his reporters clearly did slant the news, and could even have jeopardized the safety of unsuspecting children by printing roseate assumptions.

On the opinion page. Globe columnists displayed a different aspect of liberal coverage. Jeremiah V. Murphy toured South Boston and subsequently published a terribly patronizing piece on the town, even lingering one moment at a bar to applaud the rude virtue of one citizen who was nursing a shot glass on the mahogany. Murphy did not care to denounce these Bostonians for what is a most ugly and virulent strain of racism.

David B. Wilson, a columnist who did blast this racism, delivered the following cloying and romanticized perception, on seeing a black baby in the subway:

And what a rotten thing for the baby child, the adorable, cuddled, beloved, little black girl, hurtling through the dark tunnel under South Boston, briefly lighting up the lives of those who saw her, moving through time out of babyhood and into childhood and understanding. What kind of world was "white power" preparing for her?

IF HOSANNAS to black babies were the keynote of The Globe's opinion page, the Boston Herald-American emerged with the "tar-baby" line. Court-ordered busing, the paper implied even on the front page, was the tar-baby that a capricious judge had left sitting on a street corner in Boston, and now decent citizens who had just happened to amble by were stuck with the fallacious responsibility of busing children. The citizens are the responsible people here, as if Garrity's order was a senseless test of a God-fearing, patriotic population, by directing an odious plague on their children to see if they could buck up.

Bill Duncliffe opened his lead story the day the schools opened,

The safety of 94,000 children and the salvation of Boston's historic standing as a community of reasonable and law-abiding families are at stake today as the city reopens its public schools under a court order to reduce racial imbalance in its classrooms.

Boston's salvation is still being worked out in the schools, although coverage of events is not so heraldic. The salvation of the press, however, might depend on the ability of newspapers in the future to detach themselves more from the events which they report.