By Anne and Richard Lee
Conspiracy theories, misinformation from government officials and a public that refuses to accept the truth – even when documented by facts – have become part of daily life in America in 2019.
These same elements also were factors in a prison uprising that occurred nearly 50 years ago. By examining the circumstances of the uprising, we hope to not only document an important moment in government/media relations, but also illustrate the damaging effects of government misinformation and the importance of the media’s role in aggressively seeking the truth.
The uprising took place in September 1971 at the Attica Correctional Facility in Western New York. On Sept. 9, inmates took control of the prison and held 42 staff members — guards and civilian employees — hostage. After five days, the standoff ended when State Police dropped tear gas into the prison yard and fired non-stop into the smoke, leaving 29 inmates and nine hostages dead.
At a news conference two hours after the State Police action, New York State Corrections Department officials told reporters the hostages died when prisoners slit their throats – a detail that was included in initial news reports and set the stage for reprisals by state troopers and prison officers. However, when Monroe County Coroner John Edland examined the bodies the day after the standoff ended, he concluded that all of the hostages had been killed by gunshots fired into the smoke-filled prison yard.
In a Pulitzer Prize winning story, Richard Cooper and John Machacek of The Rochester Times-Union, broke the news of the Edland’s findings. The Associated Press subsequently made their report its lead national story. Without the aggressive reporting of Cooper and Machacek, the truth about the cause of the guards’ deaths might never have been known. Edland initially had declined to release his findings publicly and only confirmed what he had found after Cooper learned the details from a contact in the coroner’s office.
According to a Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article written on the 45th anniversary of the riot, Edland was “thunderstruck that neither state officials nor the public” believed him “despite the irrefutable evidence of the causes of death.” Edland and his family were harassed and threatened by angry disbelievers. He fell into depression and was institutionalized, but eventually launched a new and successful career as an educator.
In light of the constant flow of misinformation, alternative facts and lies from today’s White House, we posit that a re-examination of media issues from the Attica riot will yield insight into for today’s journalists, as well as the pubic-at-large.
Anne and Richard Lee teach journalism in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. This article is a summary of a presentation they delivered on March 9, 2018, at Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference sponsored by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s History Division and The American Journalism Historians Association.