Adventures in the press corps: Can a person ever believe what he or she reads in the press?
In Monday’s Washington Post, Krissah Thompson did a 2200-word retrospective about the original March on Washington. At one point, she described the flap concerning the speech John Lewis planned to deliver that day.
This is what Thompson wrote:
THOMPSON (8/26/13): The stretched nerves began to fray the night before the march, when drafts of John Lewis's speech were circulated by members of SNCC, which hoped to generate buzz for the youngest of the day's official speakers.We’ll admit it—we were puzzled by what Thompson wrote. Since Sherman is famous for marching through the South in an extremely violent way, her account of Lewis’ planned remark didn’t quite seem to make sense.
In prepared remarks, Lewis threatened to "march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did—nonviolently," and also criticized Kennedy's civil rights bill as being too weak. It rattled the Big 10's alliance.
Washington's Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, who was to give the invocation at the march, said he would not speak if Lewis's speech was not altered...
Lewis chafed at O'Boyle's interference. "I didn't know him from Adam's house cat, and he probably didn't know me," Lewis says.
Still, it seemed fairly clear that Thompson was quoting Lewis’ “prepared remarks.”
We were somewhat puzzled. Then we watched the Maddow Show last night. In her last segment, Rachel said this, making our hair stand on end:
MADDOW (8/28/13): The condition that Archbishop O’Boyle set on his participation of the events that day had to do with the advance text of the speech that had not been given out by Dr. King, but had been given by another speaker that day, by the youngest person scheduled to give a speech at the march that day.Say what? That quote sounded quite a bit different!
According to advance copies of [John Lewis’] speech, distributed the night before the event, he was due to say that day: “We will not wait for the president, the Justice Department, nor the Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power outside any national structure that could and would assure us a victory."
His speech said, "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy."
Of course, the way Sherman marched through there was to burn down every splinter of it, right? But the archbishop said he would not appear at a march at which those words would be spoken.
At this point, we normally mention the old joke known as Goldberg’s Law. (The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches is never quite sure.) Instead, we'll describe our search—our inevitable search for the truth, a bit of a forced march itself.
First, it’s clear that Thompson was actually quoting a recent statement by Lewis in which he paraphrased his original planned remarks. In the new PBS program, The March, the modern-day Lewis makes the quoted statement. But he’s offering a paraphrase of his 50-year-old planned remarks.
Does that mean Maddow’s account was right? Hold on there! Not so fast!
Last week, Professor Gates did a lengthy profile of Bayard Rustin’s key role in the march. Originally, the piece appeared in The Root. Midway through, the professor takes his turn quoting those planned remarks:
GATES (8/19/13): Tensions in every direction persisted. John Lewis, one of the leaders of SNCC (now a long-standing congressman from Georgia) had prepared a militant speech for the event, reading in part, "The time will come when we will not confine our marching in Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently." To appease other speakers and refrain from alienating the Kennedy administration, Rustin and Randolph had to convince Lewis to tamp it down. The quarrel continued up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.Gates didn’t cite O’Boyle by name. But it seems clear that he had the accurate text from Lewis' planned remarks. Various sources on the web offer this longer excerpt of the planned remarks:
“The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!”
Whatever! We can now offer our verdict on history and on the modern press corps:
Thompson bungled her report. She made it sound like she was quoting the prepared remarks.
In fact, she wasn't. Perhaps Dowd is ghosting her stuff.
Maddow’s presentation strikes us as even stranger. Why would you quote the entire spiel about conducting a scorched earth policy through the South, the way Sherman did, then leave off the one key word—“nonviolently?”
We’ll grant you—it doesn’t really make sense to add the word “nonviolently” to such a provocative image. But if you’re going to quote the statement, why would you drop that one key word at the end?
We have no idea. Maybe it was bad staff work. Having said that, let's review:
On Monday, we read the Post’s report. We’ll admit we found it puzzling.
Last night, we heard what Maddow said—and we knew we were off to the races. You simply can’t believe the things you hear from the press corps. If you want to know what’s true, you have to engage in a very rough version of Walker Percy’s search.
What Walker Percy may have said: What Walker Percy may have said is shown below. We think this is a real quote:
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Percy is said to have said that a long time ago. Even before we had cable!