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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
The Media and The March; Race Issues and the Media; Interview with Wil Haygood
Aired August 25, 2013 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ERIC DEGGANS, HOST: There's not been a news story quite like it in 50 years. The 1963 march on Washington.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now back to Roger Mudd.
ROGER MUDD, REPORTER: Here at the Lincoln Memorial, the sight that is almost something no Washingtonian has beheld before.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DEGGANS: News reports from the march, along with coverage of the civil rights movement, helped change minds about the protesters and the fight to end segregation. We'll talk with the reporters who were there, including Dan Rather, who reported for CBS News, and Paul Delaney, a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Plus, "The New York Times" says ESPN dropped its partnership with public TV's "Front Line" when the NFL objected to a documentary about head injuries. Does this show the influence sports leagues have over sports journalism's biggest player?
And, are you one of the moviegoers that made this the top- grossing film of last weekend?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There he is. What's your name, my brother?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cecil Gaines.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cecil Gaines. I'm Carter Wilson, the head butler.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DEGGANS: Did you know the story of "The Butler" began with one reporter's quest for the ultimate White House insider? We'll talk with "The Washington Post's" Wil Haygood about how his reporting helped birth the box office bonanza.
I'm Eric Deggans and this is RELIABLE SOURCES. On Saturday, the National Mall hosted thousands commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington. The event, organized in part by activists and MSNBC host Al Sharpton drew intense news coverage as it did 50 years ago, when the reporters on the scene shaped the way the nation would understand the civil rights movement.
Dan Rather was a young reporter at CBS News back then, assigned to cover the movement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: Governor Wallace is now walking away from the door, apparent recapitulating now in his battle against the United States government to prevent two Negro students from entering the previously all-white University of Alabama.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DEGGANS: I spoke earlier with Dan Rather in New York City.
DEGGANS: Dan Rather, welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES.
RATHER: Glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
DEGGANS: Now, of course you're known as the former anchor of the "CBS Evening News", and now the current anchor of "Dan Rather Reports" on AXS TV. But you got your start, a couple -- your first big national story was covering the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
Can you talk a little bit about what that was like covering that story at that time?
RATHER: Well, I had just come to CBS News, which was obviously my big break as a reporter, and got assigned, partly assigned myself to the then burgeoning civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was still just out of its infancy and Dr. Martin Luther king was not, not yet a well-known national figure.
Being a Texan by birth and by choice, I came from a segregated society, but I had never seen, I had never been exposed to the kind of violence at the surface that our coverage plunged one into.
And, you know, it's easy to forget how violent, how really violent it was in particularly the early stages of the civil rights movement.
DEGGANS: Now, media coverage from that time, and especially TV coverage of the march on Washington, has been credited for changing mainstream America, white America's view of the civil rights movement and the fight against segregation. Is this your experience? Do you think that's true?
RATHER: I do believe that's true, not because of correspondents who were covering it but because of the nature of the times, the development of television, the pervasive use of television. Television was just coming into most homes in the late '50s and '60s, been around before then.
But there's no question that television's coverage of the civil rights movement, taking into people's living rooms what was happening, not some newspaper description or some highly censored or sanitized view, it brought the reality of the viciousness of the opposition to civil rights, particularly in the Deep South, into people's living rooms, and then the eloquence and courage of Dr. King and those who worked with him, such as John Lewis, now a congressman, people could see and hear for themselves.
Television was the instrument. Before television, it was easy to deny how much violence there was. It was easy to overlook a leader such as Dr. Martin Luther King. But with television, it brought it into people's living rooms. It changed the country, it changed the society and it changed history.
DEGGANS: Now, there is a story that I've heard, and you can correct me if I'm wrong. I heard that you got close to Medgar Evers' family, the NAACP leader who was assassinated in his own driveway by giving his brother a ride home after his funeral, when nobody else would give him a ride.
And I was wondering if that was true and was that a smart reporter getting close to a family at the heart of the big story, or was there something larger, some more human at work there?
RATHER: Well, the story is true. I know there was something larger, something more human at work there. I had covered Medgar Evers, who I consider an American hero, as he tried to bring justice and particularly the right to vote to people of color in Mississippi. I hadn't -- I didn't know him well but I had covered him on a fairly regular basis.
And when he was assassinated in an especially cowardly and despicable way, I was tipped to the shooting and was -- we were the first people covering it, news people at the scene. So I knew Medgar and had met his family before.
And with the shooting, it is true. I met his brother at the airport and we formed a bond which lasts to this day, I'm happy to say. I've always had a bond with Medgar's family partly because I know firsthand, I bore witness to how heroic his efforts were to bring freedom and justice in the darkest corners of Mississippi at a bad time.
By the way, it's little noted nor very often remembered that the march on Washington for which Dr. King rightly became so famous was originally designed to be primarily a march in memory of Medgar Evers and what had happened to Medgar Evers. That got lost in the shuffle of the day as it developed and has been lost in the history and reporting since that time.
DEGGANS: Well, Dan Rather, you have provided so much detail and illumination about what happened there. We really appreciate you joining us. Thanks for coming on RELIABLE SOURCES.
RATHER: Thanks for having me. Thanks a lot.
DEGGANS: For more on how the media covered the civil rights movement and the march on Washington, we turn to Joseph Torres, senior director at "Free Press" and co-author of the "New York Times" best seller "News For All the People: The Epic Story of Race in the American Media".
And Paul Delaney, a reporter who covered the civil rights movement and a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Paul, I want to start with you first. You worked for the "Atlanta Daily World" during the civil rights movement, the early days of the civil rights movement. Talk a little bit about how the black newspapers covered the civil rights movement and run-up to the march on Washington and how that may have differed with how mainstream newspapers covered it.
PAUL DELANEY, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BLACK JOURNALISTS: Well, the black papers, of course, did not have the resources, the money, the staff to adequately cover the movement. They did as best they could.
In my own case, "The Atlanta Daily World" was against the movement. It was in Atlanta. The owners were part of the black establishment in Atlanta. They -- and in coordination with downtown power structure, they wanted to keep Atlanta cool. They didn't want Atlanta to be a Birmingham or a Selma, New Orleans, so they tried to put the lid on students at first.
The movement started on February 1st, 1960. It didn't reach Atlanta until a month and a half later, mid-march.
DEGGANS: That's amazing, because normally we think of the black newspapers unilaterally supporting the civil rights movement. But you said "The Atlanta Daily World" held back a little bit?
DELANEY: Yes, it was against the movement, very strongly against the movement. They thought the youngsters would upset the apple cart. That they had planted in Atlanta.
Now, I want to go to Joe -- because in your book you talk a little bit about how media outlets throughout history sometimes support racial issues and sometimes foment combat.
So, talk about how mainstream media outlets covered the lead-up to the march on Washington. You say they focused on criminality.
JOSEPH TORRES, FREE PRESS: Yes. Definitely, leading up to the march, there was a great concern that violence was going to break out, criminality was going to happen. They even tried to talk Dr. King out of -- in the movement leaders of having the march because of the concern. The city, they say, was a ghost town during that day.
But this is nothing new. As a matter of fact, "The Washington Post" just a couple of days published a study that said they completely missed the importance and significance of Dr. King's speech because they were so prepared to cover issues of violence.
"The Chicago Sun-Times" also was against the march because they were concerned about violence as well. They just published a mea culpa about that.
But this is nothing new throughout the history of the U.S. news coverage of people of color. From the very first printed word in public occurrences in 1690, how it dealt with Native Americans, to Boston news that are 1704, how it talked about the first continuous newspaper in the United States and talking about how blacks to the very present day -- how people of color are framed often in stereo typical images, and criminality, that I'm afraid like "The Washington Post," said they blew it. The media continues to still blow it and miss the story often when it comes to people of color.
DEGGANS: That's a great point.
Paul, I want to turn to you. During this time, during the march on Washington, you said you were packing to go work for the "Dayton Daily News", right?
DEGGANS: So, you made the transition from black newspapers to mainstream newspapers right as the civil rights movement was heating up.
DEGGANS: What's your sense of the difference how mainstream newspapers covered this versus what you saw in the black press?
DELANEY: Well, let me make amend. There were a lot of black papers that supported the movement, papers in New Orleans, "The Black Dispatch," obviously, "The Pittsburgh Courier", who had a great reporter covering it.
But for the most part, the black press did not have the resources to do it. So, their coverage, even if they were supportive, was limited to using wire services rather than reporters on the scene for the most part.
DEGGANS: Gotcha. What did you see in mainstream newspapers when you moved there?
DELANEY: In Georgia, in Atlanta, the local papers, "The Atlanta Constitution" was edited by Ralph McGill who semi-supported the movement. "The Atlanta Journal" was essentially against it but both papers covered the movement well. I think, locally, they credit -- they stood out as credible journalism in contrast to other cities in Atlanta -- in Georgia.
DEGGANS: Well, I want to thank you for giving us those words. There's so much to talk about and not enough time, but I appreciate you guys coming in. Paul and Joseph, thank you so much.
From the election of the country's first African-American president to the Trayvon Martin case. How well are the media covering issues of race today?
Three journalists offer their thoughts when we come back.
DEGGANS: Lately, we've seen lots of discussion about race relations in the media. It's been sparked by a Florida jury's acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black teen Trayvon Martin and a controversy stop and frisk policy in New York City.
But some critics question that the discussion has been distorted by a race for ratings.
Joining us to debate this in the fairness of the media's race coverage -- here in Washington, Brian Beutler, political writer for "Salon" magazine. And in New York, CNN anchor Don Lemon and "New York Times" columnist Charles Blow.
Before we start this discussion, I want to take a look at two different takes on the shooting death of Australian baseball player Chris Lane.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
STEVE DOOCY, FOX NEWS: Alan West has tweeted this. Quote, "Three black teens shoot white jogger. Who will president of the United States identify with this time?"
Excellent point. I wonder when celebrities are going to put on "I am Chris Lane" t-shirts.
REV. AL SHARPTON, MSNBC: Why isn't Al Sharpton protesting this? I protest when I'm called in and when there's an injustice. The three were arrested. There was nothing to protest. The system worked there.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
DEGGANS: Now, we should point out that Steve Doocy was mistaken and we later discovered that two of the young people accused of this crime were black and one of them was white.
So, Charles, I want to go to you first and ask, you wrote a great column on Friday that talked about a weariness and outright hostility about the continued focus on racial equality that we're seeing in society today. Have media displays like what we just saw contributed to that?
CHARLES BLOW, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I don't think that it helps, particularly when we're fishing around to try to find some parallel to the Trayvon Martin case. I don't think that this particular case is the only one that we've seen since the Trayvon Martin case has occurred.
There seems to be some sort of tragedy competition to see can we figure out a polar opposite case where we can -- where we can point out the fact that there may be some inconsistencies or some inequality. And I think that what people are suffering from is some sort of selective amnesia on the Trayvon Martin case. Because unlike that case, this particular case with the Australian baseball player, we're just a week away from the -- a little bit more than a week away from when he was killed. It has been all over the news.
I have talked about it on television at least twice. There's been newspaper, there's been television and that was not the case in the Trayvon Martin case. It was a very local thing. It stayed that way forever.
And when people started to write about it, Trymaine Lee in "The Huffington Post", Ta-Nehisi Coates on his blog, and when I wrote my column about it, none of us were saying where is Rush Limbaugh? Where is Glenn Beck? Why aren't they demanding justice here?
Why aren't they -- and I think that the media -- the mainstream media is kind of taking the bait here, as if these guys are the paragons of equal justice and equal treatment. They're not. And they're demanding that of us.
DEGGANS: Charles, I'm sorry, I want to break in real quick and go to Don, because, Don, I think you may have faced the other side of this. You did a commentary where you talked about the five things that black folks could do to improve things for themselves and you got a huge backlash.
Is that because race is so tough to talk about in today's media?
DON LEMON: Absolutely is. I think race is the third rail obviously that runs through this country. I'm not the first person to say that. But yes, what I said, I talked about five suggestions in helping yourself, because when you -- when you look at -- when you want to improve something, the first place you look is within. You look at yourself.
What I talked about had nothing to do about ending structural racism and ending institutional racism. Of course, those things need to be dealt with. But until you look within and figure out what you can improve for yourself as a group or an individual in your own community, when you do that, then you can deal with the structural and institutional racism with a much clearer, educated mind.
And yes, it is very tough, Eric, to talk about race honestly in any form, especially on television. And it's not any easier, I have found out recently, if you are African-American and if you're coming at it from the perspective of a black person.
DEGGANS: Now, Brian, I'm going to turn to you. You wrote a really moving piece for "Salon" where you talked about getting shot, almost dying. Two African-Americans committed the crime. And yet that didn't change your idea or your commitment to opposing stop and frisk laws. Now, how did the media react to that? And tell me what you learned being at the center of that sort of media firestorm.
BRIAN BEUTLER, SALON: Well, overwhelmingly the response to the piece was positive. People sent me personal notes and also thoughts about what I said about how the media should talk about crime or how the media does treat crime. And in general, I got the sense that media is sort of being reffed.
People wants reporters, anchors, hosts, et cetera, to try to kind of create this weird tally about white on black crime versus black on white crime, when in reality crime is a rare enough thing that it doesn't need to be nationalized in this sort of way and it doesn't need to be sort of, like sort of tit-for-tit, race on race. And I think most reporters understand that but they feel this pressure from elements I guess on both sides. But in this case from conservatives to sort of treat certain cases as if they offset others.
DEGGANS: Well, it's interesting because I've even got people on my twitter feed saying so many black people commit these crimes and so there must be some culture violence in the black community. How do you push back against that as a journalist but also sort of stick to the facts?
BEUTLER: I try to root it in the statistics. There's a discrimination element here which I think is obvious to a lot of people.
But in general, what I said about what happened to me is that I was extremely unlucky and it would be a fallacy for me to treat everyone who resembled my attackers as if they were potential criminals. That's just a fact. It's not something that I'm inventing to try to establish credibility for myself, it's just true. I cross paths with hundreds of black people in Washington, D.C., every week. None of them try to mug me since then or shoot me since then.
LEMON: Eric, can I jump in?
DEGGANS: Sure, sure, jump in, Don.
LEMON: Listen, we must be honest. It's not because someone is African-American or Hispanic or a minority that they happen to be violent, but there is, if we're going to be honest about it, a culture of violence in this country. Number one, among young men when you see all the stories that have happened this week, that's a reflection of what's happening in the country. And, yes, there's a culture of violence among African-Americans for whatever reason, for racism, for lack of education, for all of those things.
But we cannot ignore the fact that in many cities around the country, young men of color are killing each other. I had two mayors on yesterday from Philadelphia and New Orleans, and their first thing is if someone falls into a hole, you must get them out. And then you figure out how they got in the hole after you get them out.
So, first, we have to stop the culture of violence among young African-Americans, and especially young African-American men. There is -- there is a crisis in this country.
DEGGANS: Now, Charles -- Charles, I'm going to break in and give you the last word you've got, about 10 seconds, what do you think?
BLOW: Yes, right. But I think when we say let's be honest, let's be honest about the statistical reality there, which is that the universe of criminals is tiny compared to the overall population. Most people are doing right.
LEMON: That's right.
BLOW: Doing the right thing. And when we try to extrapolate the demography of a small group of criminals onto the vast majority of people who are doing what they're supposed to be doing, I think we do ourselves a disservice as a country and particularly young African- Americans.
DEGGANS: I'm going to have to break in. I'm going to have to break in. Again, another subject we could talk about forever.
Brian Beutler, Charles Blow, Don Lemon, thank you so much for joining us.
LEMON: It's a pleasure, Eric.
DEGGANS: Coming up next, grading al Jazeera America's first week on the air. Should other cable news networks be worried about the new kid on the block?
DEGGANS: Less than a week after it replaced the Current TV channel, Al Jazeera America may not have attracted a longer audience, but it's generated a lot of attention. Critics have called its fact first attitude slow and plodding while boosters say it's calm and comprehensive.
It may be too soon to judge, but that won't stop us here.
Joining me to discuss cable news latest player, here in Washington, David Zurawik, TV critic for "The Baltimore Sun." And in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mohammed el-Nawawy, co-author of "Al- Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism."
Before we get started, let's look at some interesting endorsement that say Al Jazeera played in its first moments on air.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: It is really effective. And viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it is real news.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will connect the world to America and Americans to the world.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: What al Jazeera has done has achieved something that all of us, I think, want to achieve, and that is to make a contribution.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DEGGANS: So, David, I've got to ask you, did al Jazeera make a contribution in its first week?
DAVID ZURAWIK, THE BALTIMORE SUN: Well, it has made a contribution in its first week and I think it will make a big contribution, Eric, in this respect. We have had a narrowing of the conversation about democracy, especially on television. But throughout the media, we've become so sort of identified with corporate interests and with the powers that be. And I think part of that is the economic crunch we've all gone through, you know?
Al Jazeera in general is oriented towards what's called global south, which is the equator, people south of the equator. People who had been the victims of colonialization. Now, when you transfer that to America, you get cities like New Orleans, you get cities like Baltimore, you get cities of Detroit.
Baltimore doesn't have a bureau, I'm hoping they open one soon, but the other ones do. I tell you, I saw a documentary last year on al Jazeera English on Baltimore that felt more like the city I live in than anything I've seen on American television.
ZURAWIK: You know, in the Middle East, we say al Jazeera is much more in touch with the street. Well, there's a street in America, too, that a lot of television, a lot of network, a lot of cable is not in touch with. And in their first week, their first night, I saw them. They did a story on a woman who makes coats for homeless people. You know, in America, we drive right by the homeless. Driving in Washington today, how do the congressmen, how does the president drive down this street and not see what I see today? Al Jazeera sees it.
So here's my thing. You don't have to love Al Jazeera, you don't even have to like them, but if you say they shouldn't be in American homes, there's something wrong with what you're thinking about this conversation.
DEGGANS: I want to break in. I want to bring the professor in on this.
Back in July "The Guardian" newspaper published a memo that was written by a political analyst at Al Jazeera, wondering whether or not Al Jazeera America was going to distance itself from the channel's Middle Eastern roots.
You've seen the channel for several days. What do you think?
MOHAMMED EL NAWAWY: I think it's definitely a needed addition to the media in the United States, but I think definitely also there is kind of an dilemma. There is Al Jazeera part and there is the America part.
Walking that fine line between presenting something that would be familiar to the American public without giving up its -- the professional tenders that Al Jazeera has been founded upon, I think it's definitely something that's going to be a challenge for Al Jazeera.
But to add to what David said in terms of the global South, the global South for Al Jazeera as a philosophy is not just geographic, it's also symbolic of any marginalized group and I think it's always a novel cause for any journalist and any network to focus on people that have been marginalized socially, economically, politically.
What I want to say in this context is we -- unfortunately, in the United States, Al Jazeera is not being judged in some people's minds by its content, it is being judged by the perception. And that's where we say the medium is the message. You know, it's not --
DEGGANS: Professor, I wanted to break in quickly and ask you, when we talked earlier about Al Jazeera English, you talked about how it fit into Al Jazeera's overall media empire.
Could you talk a little bit about the growing media empire that Al Jazeera has and how Al Jazeera America fits into it?
EL NAWAWY: Well, Al Jazeera has started with one network catering to the Middle East and that has revolutionized the professional journalistic standards in the Middle East by delving into many areas that have been considered taboo before.
Since then, back in '96, Al Jazeera was just known inside the Middle East but it has grown into a big media empire with Al Jazeera America and now Al Jazeera English; before, Al Jazeera Balkans, Al Jazeera Sports. So it has been trying to reach a worldwide audience with new revolutionary professional standards.
DEGGANS: Professor, thank you very much. We once again are running out of time so I'm going to thank you.
David, thank you.
Thank you, Professor el Nawawy.
Thank you both for joining us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Coming up, ESPN backs out of a deal with PBS for a documentary about head injuries in football. We'll look at whether the sports network took a knee because of pressure from the NFL.
DEGGANS: ESPN and "FRONTLINE" spent 15 months assembling a documentary critical of pro football's response to the problem of head injuries, but that ended last week when ESPN dropped out of the partnership. The sports channel cited a lack of editing control, but "The New York Times" implied the NFL told ESPN to get out.
Joining me to discuss the implications in Tampa, Florida, Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute, who was a lead writer for The Poynter Institute when it served as ombudsman for ESPN.
Before we get started, let's take a look at the statement released by ESPN.
They said "The decision to remove our branding was not a result of concerns about our separate business relationship with the NFL. As we have in the past, including as recently as Sunday, we will continue to cover the concussion story aggressively through our own reporting."
So, Kelly, "The New York Times" describes this contentious lunch between ESPN and NFL officials just before the channel decided to pull out of the documentary.
Now, is it possible that both stories about this could be true?
KELLY MCBRIDE OF THE POYNTER INSTITUTE: Oh, yes, completely. I don't think they're mutually exclusive at all.
When I was doing this work for The Poynter Institute, being a watchdog for ESPN, I frequently heard from ESPN officials that they don't like to surprise their partners.
And even though the agreement between "FRONTLINE" and ESPN made it clear that both organizations had final control of their own editing of the documentary, I could see how, as push came to shove, ESPN couldn't make promises about what would be in "FRONTLINE's" version of the documentary.
And that put them at a disadvantage in that lunch that "The New York Times" was describing. So I think that's completely possible that they're both true.
DEGGANS: But the NFL has said that it has not pressured ESPN to back out of this project. ESPN has said that it's about their editing control. But what you just described is a situation where they sense that a corporate partner would be uncomfortable and maybe they acted on it.
Doesn't that sort of tarnish the image that ESPN has been trying to develop as a place of journalistic excellence, where they're unfettered by these conflicts? MCBRIDE: Well, you know, it's interesting because ESPN officials always described their organization as a walking conflict of interest. They have always had these two sides. One is these partnerships with the NFL and with the NBA and with the NCAA and with different college football organizations as well, where they pay lots and lots of money to get access to the rights to the games.
And then there is this other side of the organization, where they say their mission is to meet the fan wherever he is or she is and give the fan the information that he wants in order to serve that fan's desire to consume sports.
So they have these two sides of the organization. And in between that is journalism, because sports fans don't always want journalism. Often they want entertainment. And so the journalism really becomes this third leg that is -- it's what ESPN does, but it's not what they do exclusively and it's not even the biggest thing that ESPN does.
And so ESPN has a lot of journalism that they do that's been very, very good, even on this issue of concussions in football.
But, but like they describe it themselves, they are the biggest walking conflict of interest that there is because they also have these other commitments and they don't necessarily try and reconcile these commitments the way that a traditional news organization would. They don't have a strict news division the way that NBC or CNN does.
DEGGANS: All right, Kelly. Well, thank you so much for your insights here and thanks for joining us on RELIABLE SOURCES.
MCBRIDE: You're welcome.
DEGGANS: When we come back, the newspaper story behind "The Butler." A conversation with "The Washington Post" journalist whose reporting inspired the hit film.
DEGGANS: Lee Daniels' "The Butler" opened last weekend to critical acclaim and topped the box office, but the film was inspired by a "Washington Post" story on Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents during a 34-year career as a White House butler. Reporter Wil Haygood wrote that story in 2008, the same year America elected its first black president. Haygood sat down with me earlier to talk about his success.
DEGGANS: Wil Haygood, welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES.
WIL HAYGOOD, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Thank you, good to be here.
DEGGANS: So Lee Daniels' "The Butler," a top grossing movie over this past weekend. You've got huge stars like Oprah Winfrey and Robin Williams in this movie, but a lot of people might not know that the whole film started as an idea from a story you did in 2008 in "The Washington Post."
So tell us a little bit about Eugene Allen and why you thought his story was so compelling.
HAYGOOD: When I started the search, I was literally looking for a ghost, but I knew I wanted to find a maid, a laundry person, a shoeshine person, you know, a worker inside of the White House because that's the most powerful address in the world.
And if I found an African-American worker, then during the '50s, it was still treated outside of the White House as a second-class citizen because they didn't have their full rights. And I thought that saga, their life, whoever I would find, I thought their life bracketed up against the life of then Senator Obama's victory would be a very compelling story.
DEGGANS: So how did you find Eugene Allen?
HAYGOOD: A phone call came in from Tampa, Florida. And the lady said, there is a gentleman by the name of Eugene Allen, and if you can find him, I don't know where he lives at, but the last time I saw him, he was exiting the White House and was getting inside of a taxicab.
So she said I think he lives in the Virginia-Maryland-D.C. area. And so you ought to start your search there. So I got out phone books for like four straight days. It's a fairly common name, Eugene Allen. And I just started cold calling every Eugene Allen in, say, you know, all of the neighboring cities -- I mean towns outside of D.C., Virginia, Maryland.
Because if he was catching a taxicab, then I just said, well, he must live in the region.
And on the 57th call, a gentleman answers the phone.
And I say, "My name is Wil Haygood. I'm a reporter for "The Washington Post" and I'm looking for Mr. Eugene Allen, who I think worked at the White House with three administrations."
He said, "I am that Eugene Allen. However, I worked for eight administrations, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan."
And I almost dropped the phone.
DEGGANS: So then you knew you had a story.
DEGGANS: And no one had talked to him in 34 years of service in the White House?
HAYGOOD: Yes, 34 years. I went over there, of course, the very next -- a day later, because his wife said, yes, we'll talk to this writer, but you tell him that we both have doctors' appointments tomorrow. And so I waited a day, fairly nervous, hoping that they wouldn't change their mind. And I went over there and sat with them throughout a whole day.
And at one point she said, "Honey, you can show him." And I didn't know what that meant. And he got up, frail man at that time, and asked me to hold his arm. He took me down in the basement and he turned on the light.
It was like being swooped through a magical curtain into the Land of Oz. There were all these photographs of him and President Truman, him and President Eisenhower and President Kennedy, President Johnson, President ford, President Nixon, and there were letters to him from these presidents and there were pictures of him and various celebrities who had visited the White House.
It was astonishing.
DEGGANS: So tell me a little bit just quickly, how it came from being a newspaper story to actually becoming a movie script. How did this all come together?
HAYGOOD: Well, Laura Ziskin, great movie producer who made the "Spider-Man" movies, unfortunately, she passed away before the movie was finished. But she was the one who called me first and she wanted the rights to the story.
And she got that -- and Mr. Allen was still living. And she also hired, soon thereafter, hired Danny Strong, a great screenwriter, an Emmy award-winning scriptwriter, he wrote the script for both "Game Change" and "Recount." And so this milieu was right up his alley.
And so he came in and saw the civil rights epic, epic quality of the story because Mr. Allen served in the White House during some of the most tumultuous moments in this nation's history. He was there and heard the echoes and the ripples of the murder of Emmett Till, the murder of Medgar Evers, the missing civil rights workers in Mississippi -- Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney -- and of course the passage of the landmark civil rights bills in 1964 and 1965.
So what was interesting to me about this is that the butler in the movie, his name is Cecil Gaines, not Eugene Allen, and there are some aspects of his life that are different, everything from having a son who was involved in the civil rights movement, who he clashed with, to having a mother who was raped by an overseer on the plantation.
So were you concerned that the fictional story might overshadow Eugene's real life and was there any concern that people might walk out of the movie thinking that was Eugene's life?
HAYGOOD: I think really it comes down to a filmmaker's art and a filmmaker's approach. I think when people go see the movie, as they have been doing, thankfully, that you know, if they know the Eugene Allen story from either the original story that I wrote, or the book that I've also written, I think that they'll see that the figure on screen is -- represents the essence and the soul of this man who served all these years in the White House.
DEGGANS: One thing that interested me, we've had another recent movie about black domestics called "The Help." And that got a little bit of a backlash from people who said, well, you know, mainstream Hollywood loves focusing on black people who were in servants' positions. And they get saved by white people.
HAYGOOD: Well, I really think that this movie is a different sort of movie. First of all, it's inspired by a real man's life. And it's also a movie about the intersection of power and civil rights in this country.
And I think it's all too rare that we see a story, epic stories of African-American love on the big screen. And I think that's all to the good.
I think that the movie ultimately shows the great things that America has done, even with the torment that we had to endure going from segregation to integration. This man was born in 1919, on a Southern plantation, and lived in real life to get an invitation to see the swearing in of the nation's first African-American president. I just think it's a very rich story.
DEGGANS: That's an amazing story.
And Wil Haygood, you've gone from covering Nelson Mandela to now telling a story about a butler that's had a worldwide impact. Thank you so much for joining us on RELIABLE SOURCES.
HAYGOOD: Thank you very much. Great to be here.
DEGGANS: After the break, why I think you might be the key to saving media from its worst instincts.
DEGGANS: I close today with a message for you, the viewer.
Walking among the crowds Saturday at the commemoration of the march on Washington, I was struck by how many different kinds of people had come together to honor 50 years of civil rights history.
So why does some media still find it so hard to help Americans talk to each other across racial lines?
I'm convinced one aggravating factor is media outlets that profit by playing off prejudice and encouraging people's fears about race difference. I even wrote a book about this, called "Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation." It's part of a syndrome I call the tyranny of the broad niche. That's what happens when media outlets court the biggest part of a splintering audience at the expense of other groups.
And there may be one cure, changing the audience itself. There's some pretty simple guidelines for positive conversations on these issues, recognizing that no one person or group owns this discussion, avoiding insults and belittling people, understanding that talking about race doesn't equal racism and accepting that we all fall prey to prejudice sometimes and that doesn't necessarily make you a bigot.
Watching anti-abortion activists hold signs peacefully right next to immigration reform protesters at Saturday's march, I got the feeling the crowd there already learned these lessons and the truth is, in today's media environment, you have more power than ever. You can reject outlets focused on harmful, destructive arguments and embrace accurate, fair discussions.
No viewership, no readership, equals no profits and suddenly that kind of programming disappears. Now maybe, just maybe, it's time for the audience to help save media from itself.
Thanks for watching this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Eric Deggans; I'll be chatting after the show on Twitter, so tweet me @Deggans or just use the hashtag #reliable.
And if you missed anything, you can catch all of today's conversations on CNN.com or go to iTunes and check out our podcast. Join us next Sunday at 11:00 am Eastern. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.