Why the "60 Minutes" Story on Emmett Till Was a Disappointment

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Beito is an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama and Linda Royster Beito is chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Stillman College. They are writing a biography of T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader and entrepreneur who helped to find witnesses and evidence in the Emmett Till case. David T. Beito is also a member of Liberty and Power, a group blog at the History News Network.

In the wake of memogate,"60 Minutes" has done it again. Sunday’s report on the killing of Emmett Till was an example of slipshod and misleading journalism. The producers have few excuses in this case. They did it with their eyes open. They were warned not just once but several times that their forthcoming report might contain inaccuracies. In a rush to air the story, however, they plowed ahead, instead of following the first rule of journalism: getting their facts straight.

Certainly, a report on the killing of Emmett Till is long overdue. His story stands as one of the great tragedies and defining moments of American history. In August 1955, two white half brothers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, kidnapped Till, a fourteen year old black boy, from his great uncle’s home. Several days later, his brutally beaten and horribly disfigured body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River. What had Till done to merit such treatment? Witnesses said that he wolf-whistled, and perhaps made suggestive remarks, to Bryant’s pretty young wife, Carolyn (now Carolyn Bryant Donham) while buying bubblegum at Bryant’s store in the hamlet of Money, Mississippi.

The Till case was a media sensation as journalists from all over the world flocked to the small town of Sumner for the trial. When a Mississippi jury acquitted Milam and Bryant in September, protests erupted in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and many other cities. Some historians contend that the fall-out from these events sparked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Only three months after the trial, in December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott was underway because Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.

Because the importance of this case both to the history of civil rights and to an ongoing federal investigation, journalists and historians share a greater than usual obligation to be careful with the facts. For this reason, the conduct of"60 Minutes" is especially disappointing.

How do we know this? For nearly ten years, we have been researching the case as part of our biography of civil rights leader T.R.M. Howard, who was instrumental in uncovering evidence and finding witnesses. We interviewed three of the individuals who were the focus of the"60 Minutes" report: Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett’s mother), Henry Lee Loggins (a black employee of Milam), and Willie Reed (a black high school student who testified at the trial). We also examined numerous FBI documents and other primary sources. Tanya Simon, an employee of"60 Minutes," heard about our research and contacted us in June. We sent her a copy of our article for the History News Network published in April and the book chapters from our biography of Howard from which it derives. The HNN article analyzed our taped interviews in 2001 with Loggins and Reed. We were probably the first people to interview them about the case in nearly fifty years. We told filmmaker Keith Beauchamp about Loggins who conducted his own interview with him in 2002. We also sent Ms. Simon copies of the series of articles by Amos Dixon from 1956 that we had discussed at length in our HNN article and our biography of Howard. The articles had first appeared in the California Eagle, a well known black newspaper, and alleged that Henry Loggins had taken part in the crime.

When we had a chance to see"60 Minutes" on Sunday, we were dismayed by the sloppiness of the report. It included numerous errors and misleading information. The first sign of trouble was Ed Bradley’s introduction which promised far more than it delivered. He declared that the Department of Justice had opened its investigation in the spring"based on evidence suggesting than more than a dozen people may have been involved in the murder of Emmett Till and that at least five of them are still alive. Those five could face criminal prosecution. And before we tell you about them, let us tell you what happened to Emmett Till." Later he underlined this point again:"The U.S. Justice Department says that a number of other people who may have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till are still alive today. We spent much of the past five months tracking them down. When we come back, we will tell you who they are."

Despite this,"60 Minutes" never followed through on the promise to"tell" about these five suspects who are"still alive," not to mention the original twelve alleged participants in the crime. If the producers can identify these five individuals, they have a journalistic obligation to do so or, at the very least, provide some reason to believe that they even exist.

The only people named by"60 Minutes" as potential suspects who are still alive were Loggins, who allegedly took part in the crime, and Carolyn Bryant Donham. We found the segment on Loggins, including Ed Bradley’s interview and narration, to be particularly misleading. While Bradley quoted on air from one of the articles from the California Eagle we had sent to"60 Minutes," he did not even hint at the contradictory nature of the evidence against Loggins.

For example, when Bradley interviewed Willie Reed, he did not point out that at the trial itself Reed did not name any of the men on the truck, other than Milam. Reed only said that there were two black men (besides Till) and three white men (besides Milam)."60 Minutes" ignored the results of our interview with Reed in 2001 which identified the two black men as Levi"too tight" Collins (now dead) and Joe Willie Hubbard (whereabouts unknown). Reed specifically denied to us that Loggins was on the truck. Nor, as"60 Minutes" wrongly states, did Reed ever identify Bryant as one of the white men on the truck.

The producers of"60 Minutes" have an ethical obligation to correct their inaccurate information and to corroborate their claims that five participants in the kidnapping or murder are still alive. Given our previous experiences with"60 Minutes," however, we have little hope that they will do so. While the killing of Emmett Till deserves more attention from the media, the producers of"60 Minutes" have failed to fulfill their stated mission to serve the public good.

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all allaccess - 7/27/2010

The lady lives in Greenville, MS, where I understand the population is 70% black. Why has some black person not bothered to sort her out? surely people must see the cow going about her normal business in town. Her address apparently is:
425 E. Rebecca Drive, Greenville, Mississippi

all allaccess - 7/27/2010

The bitch lives in Greenville, MS, where I understand the population is 70% black. Why has some black person not bothered to sort her out? surely people must see the cow going about her normal business in town. Her address apparently is:
1425 E. Rebecca Drive, Greenville, Mississippi

jose logino chavez - 5/2/2006

I think that 60 minutes is a good show but they should have not said that they where going to tell the midia the five names and not do it and they should have researched a lttle more on the case and the real facts
sincerly JOSE CHAVEZ

Michael Green - 10/30/2004

I would like to commend the Beitos on their work and research. They also are right about sloppiness on 60 Minutes, of course. But how one gets from sloppiness to "slants stories" in this case is beyond me. The problem, as usual, is not that the media are liberal, because they are not. That is the kind of sweeping generalization that we do not allow students to use. However, it is possible, on the basis of ample evidence, to show that the "l" word that describes the media is "lazy." And the Beitos have demonstrated this point. "60 Minutes" producers would rather produce heat than shed light, just as other broadcasts are far more interested in screaming than in intelligent discourse. For that, we can and must look somewhere other than the networks.

Vernon Clayson - 10/30/2004

And anyone is surprised that 60 Minutes slants stories??