THE NEWS SPECIAL “Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media”
WHEN|WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBC/4
WHAT IT’S ABOUT This NBC News special hosted by Lester Holt, marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., explores how the TV networks in the late ’50s finally began to cover the civil rights movement, and how King forced them to.
MY SAY In 1971, Gil Scott-Heron released his spoken-word funk classic, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” On Saturday, some evidence to the contrary: Parts in fact were televised, because by the late ’50s, the Big Three networks had stumbled upon a story they could no longer ignore. King made certain of that.
As “Hope” notes, black media had been covering Jim Crow for decades, but the white media was another story altogether. Civil rights historian Taylor Branch, says, “It’s galling to look at the level of disregard that was in the media at the time.” Holt — who is both narrator and, occasionally, commentator — says King also understood that black media coverage “was only preaching to the choir [and] you’ve got to get out of the church.”
Indeed he did. King adviser Andrew Young Jr. says, for example, that “we deliberately had demonstrations before 1 p.m. in order for the film to get to New York” before airtime. Footage of armed police attacking a peaceful march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, arrived a bit too late for ABC, which instead broke into a broadcast of “Judgement at Nuremberg” shortly after 9 p.m. Some 50 million watched, and “the average viewer was thinking, gosh, are we like Nazi Germany?” says Hank Klibanoff, co-author of 2007’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Race Beat,” about press coverage of the movement.
Many other films, including Henry Hampton’s monumental 14-part PBS series, “Eyes on the Prize,” have explored the symbiotic relationship between media and the movement. “Hope’s” special contribution is the tic-toc — the blow-by-blow, picture-by-picture, tragedy-by-tragedy story told year-by-year. The narrative is threaded with unclouded memories and emotions as raw as yesterday.
Scott-Heron, meanwhile, was prescient in one key regard. Network TV loves its commercials, and “Hope” will have far too many. NBC should make this three-hour special commercial-free because viewers need to bear witness — again.
BOTTOM LINE Some fleeting segues to the Black Lives Matter movement feel obligatory and woefully incomplete — but they don’t derail this otherwise excellent program.