Media are cultural artifacts — they reflect what is important to a society and what that society values for a particular period of time. It is useful in helping us understand human social practices and ways of being.
Conversely, media can also tell us who and what societies do not value. In his book “Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre,” Randy Krehbiel used the two most prominent newspapers of the time — The Tulsa World and The Tulsa Tribune — to compile an extensively detailed account of who and what the City of Tulsa and State of Oklahoma valued, and conversely who and what they did not.
The instigation, distortion, omission and subsequent revision of the events leading up to the Tulsa Race Massacre and its aftermath lends itself to a critique of media practices then, but also allows us to draw comparisons of media practices that have endured.
At the time, the World and the Tribune prescribed to distinct political ideologies, with the World being Republican and the Tribune largely Democrat. Ideologies with respect to race relations reflected normalized white supremacy.
Both newspapers used the n-word with impunity and actively criticized attempts to increase the Black vote in the state. The newspapers were at odds with one another, which fueled attempts to outdo the other during the on-the-ground reporting over the Memorial Day weekend of the massacre. Many have attributed the newspaper’s use of “charged” language as a pretext for the events that transpired.
Once the massacre was over and the city, county and state had to account for their actions, the two newspapers began a series of stories that appealed to the “false honor” of white Tulsa. This appeal was rooted in white supremacy, with papers declaring that, as the better of the two races, white Tulsans should do what is necessary to restore order and calm to the city.
This was largely done out of embarrassment and to restore the image of Tulsa nationwide, as the rest of the U.S. had gotten word of the massacre and began running stories on the events. The white supremacist ideology manifested itself through stories of Black Tulsans as destitute, inferior and culpable victims of crimes they brought on themselves.
Beyond the on-the-ground reporting, the political ideologies of the two newspapers are just as important to how the story unfolded because of their connection to Oklahoma politicians and their interests in saving their allies and/or destroying their enemies during the fallout. These politicians also had economic interests tied directly and indirectly to boards and commissions charged with determining the fate of Greenwood.
Decades of media research have supported the types of depictions of Black people that the World and the Tribune perpetuated, but what is interesting in this case is the enduring legacy and also erasure of events.
Newspapers are supposed to document events; we use them to understand the past. If 10 years ago, I had gone digging in the archives for research on the Tulsa Race Massacre, I would glean that what endured was a “riot” largely instigated by Black people, because those were the accounts that were cemented in the record.
The only Black newspaper outlet in Tulsa at the time was destroyed. Many of the Black Tulsans who survived the attack fled. The entire account, based on what journalists were documenting, was from a white supremacist lens.
Even as I read Krehbiel, I was struck by how much of his book centers whiteness— mundane details about the physical appearances and family backgrounds of notable white Tulsans. I realize it was because the history of the massacre, as documented by what is/was supposed to be objective journalism was constructed through that lens.
Because media reflects to us our reality, it is immensely important that a multitude of voices and perspectives be added to understand the story. Too often, however, media’s incestuous relationships with politics influence events and layer them with ideologies that include some and exclude others.
As media have grown, this trend has not changed much. It has only been in the last 10 years, since the introduction of social media, that information dissemination has been diffused, allowing for varied voices and perspectives — a more ethical and equitable journalistic practice.