'The Real Story' of Malcolm X is everything but

December 03, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

CBS News will broadcast a special report tonight called "Malcolm X: The Real Story." Calling this show "the real story" might be the most outrageous TV claim of the year.

The show itself is a superficial archival-clips-and-quickie-interview job with Dan Rather as host. As such, it probably wouldn't be worth too much attention.

But the fact that it will be seen by about 20 million people tonight and that CBS is telling those viewers that they are seeing "the real story" opens the door for a look at how TV has dealt with Malcolm X over the years.

"Like Paul Robeson before him, American TV proved inhospitable to . . . Malcolm X," J. Fred MacDonald said in his 1992 book "Blacks and White TV: African Americans in Television Since 1948."

"Except for a few black-hosted programs long after his assassination in 1965, television has portrayed Malcolm X as a hate-filled, racist radical."

That's the general assessment of media historians: TV either excluded Malcolm X or portrayed him negatively when it did include him. Thereis also agreement that TV's depiction of Malcolm X as a "hate-filled, racist radical" started with CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace and a TV special on Black Muslims that Wallace co-anchored in 1959, "The Hate That Hate Produced." In fact, Wallace played a larger role in the characterization of Malcolm X over the years than any other single person in television.

Tonight's "real story" includes a clip from "The Hate That Hate Produced." It also includes Wallace's reflections about his first encounter with Malcolm X. The 1959 show and Wallace's performance are both presented in a favorable light.

What "Malcolm X: The Real Story" doesn't tell viewers is that "The Hate That Hate Produced" took TV news to new heights of sensationalism by portraying Malcolm X and other Black Muslims only as hate-filled, racist radicals. Here's how Malcolm X himself described the show and reaction to it in his autobiography: "In a way, the public reaction to the show was like what happened back in the 1930s when Orson Welles frightened America with a radio program, describing, as though it were actually happening, an invasion by 'men from Mars.'

"Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were exclaiming, 'Did you hear it? Did you see it? Preaching hate of white people?' Here was oneof the white man's most characteristic behavior patterns -- where black men are concerned. He loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don't share his vainglorious self-opinion."

Tonight's show doesn't mention that. It also doesn't mention the New York Times' review of "The Hate That Hate Produced" that blasted the report, saying, "Mike Wallace's penchant for pursuing sensationalism as an end in itself has backfired."

In a recent interview with The Sun, Mr. Wallace defended the 1959 broadcast, saying that six months later the New York Times did a similar series on the Black Muslims while citing his work. "TV in effect led the way," Wallace said.

But Wallace acknowledged that TV did not do a very good job of reporting on Malcolm X.

"You never got a rounded picture of Malcolm X from television coverage," Wallace said. "The thing that fascinated me about Malcolm . . . is his evolution, his constant searching for himself. He was such a compelling man, with a range of interests beyond black and white, too. He was a very thoroughly interesting man. And that has never been reflected in television's coverage of him through the years."

Wallace blamed the one-dimensional portrayal on the lack of TV coverage of Malcolm X during the civil rights years. And he blamed that lack of coverage on Malcolm X and the Muslims themselves. "During those years, there were CORE, SNIC, SLC, NAACP, Martin Luther King. . . . The Muslims were still regarded as a -- I don't want to say freak -- but certainly as a marginal group. The others were all about integration. . . . The Muslims were about separation."

But the explanation overlooks the role TV played in determining what was considered marginal in the 1960s. If Malcolm X and the Muslims fit that description, one reason is because TV said they were marginal. The leader in TV news in the 1960s was CBS News. The civil rights marchers in the South during the early 1960s also were considered radical and marginal by many Americans -- until CBS decided to aim its news cameras at the attack dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs.

TV is not the only member of the media family that failed in its coverage of Malcolm X. Newspapers, magazines, radio share the blame. But CBS-TV is the one with the audacity now to say it has "the real story," when what it has is arguably the worst history of performance with regard to Malcolm X.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from how TV dealt with Malcolm X: about what happens when only whites get to tell America's stories; about how TV has often excluded viewpoints outside its status-quo bias; about the notion of TV news as our "window to the world."

But none of that is in "Malcolm X: The Real Story."

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