Told  /  Comment

The Media Will Be Key to Overcoming a Senate Filibuster on Voting Rights

Roger Mudd proved in 1964 that media attention can help overcome Senate obstruction.

In 1964, the Senate underwent the longest filibuster in its history: 75 days of speeches and procedural moves aimed at preventing passage of that year’s monumental civil rights bill. That legislation, proposed by President John F. Kennedy and promoted by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, aimed to ban racial segregation in public places and end employment discrimination. Southern senators had traditionally filibustered to preserve segregation and had defeated every previous attempt to invoke cloture and cut off debate. But this time an impassioned civil rights movement combined with some shrewd legislative leadership enabled the Senate to invoke cloture and pass the bill.

A sidelight to the historic effort was the marathon reporting conducted by Mudd. His story illustrates the power of the media to sway public opinion and prod lawmakers. It reminds us that the media exerts its influence not only through insightful reporting and editorial clarity but also through dogged persistence, hammering facts into the public mind until they can’t be ignored. None of Mudd’s individual reports counted as much as his multiple appearances every day the long debate lasted. His reports, interviews and just routine presence alerted his audiences to the legislation’s high stakes and the tactics being used to frustrate its progress. From the Boston Massacre to Watergate, the power of the media became manifest whenever editors and reporters, convinced of the seriousness of their cause, kept a story alive until they forced people to pay attention.

Born and raised in Washington, Mudd had been a reporter for WTOP, the local CBS affiliate, before the network news recruited him in 1961. Serious in his reporting but droll in delivery, Mudd would broadcast from the Capitol every day the civil rights filibuster lasted, an idea that sprang from Fred Friendly, the new head of CBS News. Friendly saw civil rights as a top story that deserved full attention but was frustrated by the Senate’s prohibition on the filming of its debates. Friendly complained that it would be easier for television to broadcast from the moon than from the Senate chamber — in fact, the televised moon landing took place in 1969, 17 years before the Senate finally allowed television coverage of its daily proceedings. If TV correspondents had to stand outside the Capitol to file reports, Friendly was determined to make the most of it.

He assigned Mudd to do multiple reports each day from the Capitol steps. No other story had gotten such blanket coverage, and Mudd worried that it sounded like a stunt. But he accepted the assignment and let it be known his filibuster coverage would be “straight reporting with all sides heard.” His counterpart at NBC News disparaged the experiment. “I can’t imagine who’d be listening to the stuff,” Mudd overheard him say. “Our listeners aren’t much interested.”