Charlayne Hunter-Gault refuses to succumb to despondency over today’s young people’s ideals or over the Arab Spring.
New media? That’s another story.
The civil rights hero and celebrated journalist shared that mixed message before a crowded Omni Hotel ballroom at lunch hour Tuesday.
The occasion: the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, the Winter Edition.
The festival invited Hunter-Gault to town to give her its third annual annual “Visionary Leadership Award.” The event, which features an onstage interview with the winner, gives New Haven a taste of the A&I festival, which otherwise takes place in June. (Click here to read about last year’s visionary award, given to New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.)
After the crowd finished munching on seared Arctic char, Hunter-Gault discussed her legacy—as one of the first two African-Americans to desegregate the University of Georgia; then as a crusading author and journalist for, among other outlets, the PBS News Hour—with Yale historian Beverly Gage (who’s also a standout author).
Gage asked Hunter-Gault her take on the civil rights movement five decades after its heyday. Do today’s activists have a clear-cut cause? Is there still fire in the movement belly?
Hunter-Gault responded by a telling a personal story. (Click on the play arrow to the video at the top of the story to watch part of it.)
When she and Hamilton Holmes sought to enroll in the University of Georgia, then-Gov. Ernest Vandiver had declared, “‘No, not one’—meaning [no one] who looked like me—would ever be admitted to the University of Georgia,” Hunter-Gault recalled. Three days after she did enroll, a riot took place outside her dorm. Vandiver’s lieutenant governor sent some of the “outside agitators” to stoke the riot.
Forty years later Vandiver returned to University of Georgia to commemorate the anniversary of its desegregation, and “he said he was sorry,” Hunter-Gault recalled.
“At the same time I was receiving letters from students who were in those crowds [demonstrating against her] saying they had grown up,” she continued. “They had children of their own. And they began to look at life quite differently as they brought up their own children ... They were sorry for the role that they had played.”
She could have dismissed those apologies. Instead, she said, “I was grateful.”
She has reported extensively from South Africa, where a racist society also underwent dramatic change, where people showed they could change.
She found hope, as well, in the most recent presidential election. She kept reading articles about how idealistic young activists who helped elect President Obama in 2008 had grown disillusioned and would sit out the 2012 race. Instead, they streamed to the polls and helped reelect him.
“My confidence, my faith in the transcendent values of the civil rights movement, were affirmed. This generation did find a mission,” Hunter-Gault said. “We don’t know why they got so excited and wound up again. But they did. They are finding their way. We have to have the patience to allow them to do it.”
She even reached to the current Arab Spring for an analogy. Sure, the heady initial days of overthrowing tyrants have turned to riots and constitutional crises and slaughter. But the revolution is young, Hunter-Gault noted. The United States, then South Africa, took years to get democracy right after their own revolutions. Her advice to the crowd: “We have to have some patience.”
Except, perhaps, when it come to the revolution in media that is challenging all the legacy media organizations for which Hunter-Gault has worked in her career.
All this new media just might be lowering the journalistic values that, at least in her view, were worth celebrating during the Cold War era.
“I think that we in the media have been in a period of transition since the end of the Cold War, when suddenly the very clear-cut good guys and bad guys were no longer clear cut. We ended the Soviet Union. So those were the bad guys. How do we definite ourselves?” she said.
She made no mention of the new bogeymen, “terrorists.”
Instead, she decried the ideological polarization of TV networks like Fox and MSNBC. And the tendency of today’s journalist’s to seek fame rather than do that basic fact-gathering so crucial to the trade. She doesn’t see much of that fact-gathering happening anymore. Reporters are too busy using those newfangled cameras and other gizmos.
“I think we’ve been in a sort of search for our role since [the Cold War’s end]. I think it is intensified by social media and all the new forms of communication,” Hunter-Gault said. “I worry that where it’s going.”
Journalists today are “in it to be stars,” she lamented. The “younger generation want to be stars like them. The fundamental nitty-gritty dirty stuff that I went through and still from time to time still go through to get a story is something that they don’t even think about. Now there are a lot of them going out now with their own cameras because they’re reporting on websites. I’m just wondering about the standards that they have and who’s imparting those standards.”
While she didn’t express much optimism about the media, she did say she believes one outlet still adheres to high standards and informs the public: Her old haunt, the NewsHour. Maybe there’s hope after all.