After the Fire: NewsHour Coverage of Civil Unrest in America, 1991-2021
After the Fire: NewsHour Coverage of Civil Unrest in America, 1991-2021 presents coverage of major events of civil unrest in America from the early 1990s to 2021 by the PBS NewsHour and its predecessors, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. By spotlighting the segments and series centered around these events, this exhibition explores the ways in which the NewsHour has attempted to understand and unpack civil unrest in America. Specifically, this exhibition highlights the NewsHour’s coverage of the L.A. Riots (or the Rodney King Riots), the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the Ferguson Protests, the Baltimore Protests, and the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally and Counter-Protests. An accompanying annotated list includes additional events of civil unrest from 1991 to 2021 with links to relevant NewsHour coverage.
After the Fire is the second in a series of AAPB exhibits focusing on programs available in the PBS NewsHour Collection. It was curated by Kate Mitchell, a 2021 Library of Congress Junior Fellow and Master of Information student at Rutgers University School of Communication & Information. Hailey Williams, MFA Candidate in Poetry, College of Charleston, contributed final touches while working in the Library of Congress Internships (LOCI) Program in Spring 2023. We are grateful to present and former NewsHour correspondents and producers Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Jeff Goldman, Annette Miller, Susan Mills, and Judy Woodruff, and to an anonymous reviewer of the exhibit essay for their helpful advice.
This exhibition examines how the NewsHour approached its coverage of civil unrest and focuses on methods used by the NewsHour to create a more nuanced narrative than was typical in media coverage. Though this exhibition highlights events of civil unrest birthed from racial injustice and incidents of police brutality, it also includes the coverage of events with political or economic motivations, such as the Seattle WTO Protests and the Madison Occupy and the Occupy Wall Street Movements.
In 2021, NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff described the importance of looking back at these protests and the ways they had been covered in the past:
In the news business, we’re always focused on what’s next, what’s today, what’s tomorrow, what’s next week, what’s next month…. Rodney King is such a perfect example of a way to look at what’s happening today with racial reckoning, with the relationship with the police and Black Americans. It’s such a perfect counterpoint to look at what happened then and what’s happened over time and where we are now…. We approach things so differently today and that’s why to me it’s critical to be able to contrast it with how we used to do it, to put it in context, and help you understand how much progress we’ve made and how much progress we still have to make. We still have a long way to go when it comes to covering these kinds of issues.1
A Note on Terminology
The term “riot” is used repeatedly in this exhibit to reference incidents of civil unrest that occurred in Los Angeles following the announcement on April 29, 1992, of the verdict in the criminal trial of Los Angeles Police Department officers for beating motorist Rodney King. “Riot” was used most frequently in contemporary public broadcasting programs and newspaper coverage, and in later historical accounts. We also use “riot” for a few later incidents. We acknowledge that other terms, including “uprising” and “rebellion,” also have been used to identify similar incidents of civil unrest and that cogent reasons have been offered for using each term.