When the Detroit uprising of 1967 erupted, Variety covered it from only a showbiz angle, which was the paper’s mandate in those days. But several pieces in the following year provided a thoughtful analysis about race relations and media in that era.

A brief story in the July 26 weekly edition read: “Negro riots here have closed film and legitimate theaters, nightclubs in Detroit and bordering cities of Highland Park and Hamtramck. Curfew runs from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. Liquor sales are temporarily illegal. Governor George Romney has called for 5,000 Federal troops. These have been granted by President Johnson after 7,000 National Guardsmen were used Sunday night in vain effort to control situation.” That was the entire piece.

A month later, on Aug. 23, Variety wrote a follow-up story, saying “showbiz has rebounded in great shape” after two weeks of curfews.

In its coverage of the race riots, Variety (like most other news outlets) had no mention the horrific events that unfolded at the nearby Algiers Motel, where three black men were killed and nine others were brutally beaten. The incident is at the center of Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie “Detroit.” In 1968, Variety wrote a piece speculating about a movie version of John Hersey’s nonfiction book “The Algiers Motel Incident,” which came out that year. (That book was the first to shine a spotlight on the Algiers.) However, a film adaptation was never made.

Some politicians clung to the belief that the media was at fault. Ten months after the Detroit events, Variety reported that broadcast news coverage had been examined by a House investigations subcommittee, as well as investigators from the House Committee on Un-American Activities and at least one judiciary committee; all were probing the three networks “because of a suspicion that unfairness [in coverage] might be revealed.” The networks were given a clean bill of health.

As part of Variety’s Jan. 3, 1968, recap of the riots, FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson wrote a guest column arguing that the demonstrations were not incomprehensible, as many politicians in D.C. had suggested. Johnson wrote that the uprising was not senseless, random violence, stressing that a riot is “a form of communication. A riot is somebody talking … someone saying ‘You’re not listening to me.’ ”

“A riot is somebody talking … somebody saying ‘You’re not listening to me.’”
FCC’s Nicholas Johnson, In Variety

The commissioner’s column was a rebuttal to D.C. accusations; Johnson concluded that media coverage had been fair and balanced — but inadequate.

A riot, he wrote, is an attempt to be heard, but the media had not been listening. Citing Detroit, Johnson said members of the mainstream media “had known virtually nothing of the extremes of poverty, suffering and — as it turned out — outrage festering in the ghettos of our cities.”

In the 1950s and early ’60s, journalists had done an excellent job in exposing Southern bigotry during the civil rights struggles, he wrote. However, they backed off when consciousness was raised in other parts of the country. “Suddenly the challenge was close to home,” he wrote, and national media “may have lost a bit of its appetite for getting to the truth beneath the surface of things.”

The five-day battle in Detroit left 43 people dead and 1,189 injured and led to more than 7,200 arrests. It was always described as a riot in those days, though modern analysts have said that word implies “unprovoked mayhem”; many prefer terms like civil disturbance, public disorder, protest, uprising or rebellion.

A key to the eventual glimmer of understanding of what led to the incident came on July 28, 1967, a day after Detroit quieted down, when President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — aka the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Otto Kerner. The goal was to find out what happened and why, and how it could have been prevented.

In 1968, the committee published its findings. The report cited reasons for unrest in the ghettos: housing, transportation, education, medical facilities and job opportunities.

But the media wasn’t blameless. The report echoed the ideas of FCC Commissioner Johnson’s column in Variety, saying that the media had not done enough investigative work into a world filled with people who had no voice: “The press has too long basked in a white world … and that is no longer good enough.”

And the question, 50 years later: Has it gotten better?