Great events can inspire great journalism, but the riots that shook Newark, NJ in the summer of 1967 long had the opposite effect: they were covered with baffling neglect, empty optimism or bleak despair.
Not until until July 2007, with appearance of Brad Parks' series in the Star-Ledger and online, did we have reporting that could grasp the origins, agonies and consequences of the violence that scarred New Jersey's largest city. On November 7, 2007, at a lecture organized by the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, Parks brought to Rutgers-Newark the lessons of his work. They should be engraved on the wall of every newsroom: explain the context, think before you write, write with authority, and get beyond tracing the past only as far back as yesterday.
Parks' lessons were conveyed in a lecture, delivered with modesty and good humor, titled "Enough About the Cab Driver, Already! 40 Years of Media 'Construction' of the Newark Disturbances." The quotes around the word construction are Parks' friendly dig at the language of the academy and the launching pad for his own analysis of the news media's treatment of the riots.
Parks sees little in the way of overt ideology in the media and even less of a group conspiracy. Deadline pressures, he argues, and the tendency for journalists to tell the story that society is ready to hear explain much of what winds up in the news.
These are familiar points, but what gives them new life and depth is Parks' own research into the coverage of the riots and the splendid example of his own reporting.
Incredibly, Newark's Star-Ledger newspaper provided no front-page coverage on the first anniversary of the riot, none on the fifth, and only recognized the anniversary story on page one ten years out.
A pattern emerged: local press tried to be positive about Newark, even though the city was in deep trouble. The national press, particularly the New York Times, treated the Newark upheaval as emblematic of all urban riots of the Sixties. Between these two perspectives and the gulf that yawned between them, an awful lot got lost.
When Parks was assigned to the anniversary story, he almost fell for the cab driver dodge. Like many reporters before him, he set out to find the cabbie, John Smith, whose beating at the hands of Newark police is believed to have started the riot.
But when Parks learned that Smith had already died in North Carolina, he pursued a more complex and important story: how wrenching social, political and economic forces combined to make Newark a tinderbox in the summer of 1967. Then, by interviewing the people who endured the upheaval from every sort of perspective, he produced a series that was attentive to shared experiences, painful differences, and the rough road to recovery.
I won't bore you with a description of Parks' series and the elegant multimedia presentation they they received on the Web. Anything I say would only pale against the original versions.
Parks modestly says that he is only telling the story that people are finally ready to hear. He also gives credit to Clement Price, a historian at Rutgers-Newark who pointed him towards a historical analysis of the riots.
All true, but I think Parks underplays the contributions of his own reporting, writing and analysis. He's broken a mold, and Newark is better off for it.
Read his stories, and look and listen at the video and graphics around them, to see what great urban journalism can be.