Remembering Newsweek’s Race Beat

A look back at the magazine's glory days.

Bloomberg/Getty Images
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Four Alumni Reflect on Demise of Print Edition

In a 2009 edition of “Mormon Matters,” which describes itself as a “weekly podcast exploring Mormon culture and current events,” Jeff Breinholt recalled:

The July 15, 1968 edition of Newsweek featured the cover story ‘The Angry Black Athlete,‘ which stated:

” ‘It is a mess that extends from Niagara to the University of California, from Michigan to the University of Texas at El Paso. Sometimes the racial issue is inflamed by a coach’s get-tough policy. ‘I could give in to a lot of Negro demands,’ says one Southwestern track coach, ‘and keep my team intact. But someone has to hold the line against these people.’

” ‘At El Paso, track coach Wayne Vandenburg threatened to kick six athletes off the team if they joined the boycott of the New York Athletic Club indoor meet in February. The club was charged with discriminatory membership policies. Vandenburg won and the athletes competed. But two months later, after a talk with Harry Edwards, the same athletes refused to enter a meet at Brigham Young University in Utah because of Mormon doctrines about blacks. Vandenburg promptly dropped champion long-jumper Bob Beamon and five others from the squad.’

“Coach [Vandenburg] sued Newsweek for defamation and, though he won a jury verdict, it was ultimately reversed on appeal, based on the court’s finding that the statements were not made with reckless disregard for the truth. The court credited as accurate the account of how, in April 1968, several black athletes at UTEP decided to boycott the BYU meet because, inter alia, of their understanding of Mormon beliefs concerning blacks. . . .”

The Newsweek story by the late Pete Axthelm set in motion a court case that established that a person who voluntarily thrusts himself into a public controversy was a public figure and thus must prove constitutional malice in order to win a libel suit.

It is also a reminder of an era when Newsweek was well-regarded for its coverage of racial issues.

“One of the things I respected most about Newsweek was the sweep and depth and seriousness it applied to covering race,” Lynette Clemetson, a former Newsweek correspondent, told Journal-isms. Clemetson now works at NPR, leading StateImpact, a local-national collaboration between NPR and station groups in eight states that reports on state government actions and their impact on citizens and communities.