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Before The Internet, TV Was The Disruptive News Technology

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There's a lot of talk these days about how the Internet and social networking tools are influencing our political system.  Of course, this is not the first time new technology has affected the trajectory of the country. One professor in Virginia is looking at how the introduction of television news coverage affected the Civil Rights Movement.

In her new book, Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement, University of Virginia scholar Aniko Bodroghkozy says that television news networks came of age just as the civil rights movement was picking up steam.

"One of the key moments is the 1965 voting rights campaign, and it was a horrible confrontation: tear gas, truncheons and, you know, and nonviolent marchers, trying to march over a bridge," says Bodroghkozy. "The televising of that confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, most historians will argue, leads almost directly to the passage of the voting rights act five months later.

And civil rights leaders were savvy to the medium--Bodroghkozy points to a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. about the marches of 1965: "He said that we are not going to allow the white racists to keep beating us up in dark alleys, we are going to make them do it in the glaring light of television."

Most reporters believed in civil rights causes, but Bodroghkozy says that major news networks were still figuring out the best way to report a story. For example, with the footage from the 1963 march on Washington, the editing was skewed for the sake of white TV audiences, Bodroghkozy says.

"March on Washington was three-quarters African American, about one-quarter white, but you look at the images and it looks almost as if there was racial parity, you know an unthreathening kind of image of this kind of racial utopia of blacks and whites altogether," she says.

Bodroghkozy believes that it was exactly television's newness that made the medium so important for the civil rights movement: "TV news in its early days was basically trying to show the print press that we're serious journalists, too. This kind of approach elevated that movement into national consciousness in a non-exploitative kind of way."

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