Television has been turning everyday people into celebrities since it became a fixture in American households. Although reality television did not begin until 1973 with An American Family, television news reporters were putting everyday people in the spotlight long before that. Throughout the later 1950s and 1960s, we can see television news coverage turning local issues into national spectacles, a single person’s voice into the voice of an entire city. One such early instance of television news plucking ordinary people and thrusting them into the national spotlight occurred during the New Orleans integration crisis in 1960.
As shown on the linked and embedded map, by 1960, television stations were distributed throughout Louisiana, a full sixteen television stations operating throughout. New Orleans itself hosted four (Visualizing Louisiana Television Stations). When on November 14, 1960, four African-American girls – Ruby Bridges, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gaile Etienne – enrolled for the first time in two all-white New Orleans elementary schools, television cameras were on the scene. After the New Orleans white population erupted into protests, national broadcasts used local film footage to reinforce their narratives denouncing southern protests against integration. Also commonly shown alongside footage of the riots was footage of one white family, the Gabrielles, who refused to participate in the boycott and kept their daughter Yolanda in school because “it was the right thing to do.” Footage of Daisy leading her daughter to school through a gauntlet of screaming angry white protestors became a major part of the national narrative denouncing the protestors’ anger, and it made the Gabrielle family into national heroes. When James Gabrielle lost his job for not supporting the boycott, viewers from across the nation sent them money to help get them back on their feet. Eventually, James was blacklisted in New Orleans, and the Gabrielles were forced to leave New Orleans.
One of the best records of this celebritization process is found in the many letters sent to the mayor of New Orleans, deLesseps Morrison, which reference the footage of Daisy leading her daughter to school. One such letter-writer complains about the harsh treatment of the Gabrielle family, writing that the footage gave him and his “nine-year old son Dick” a “sickening frustrating ashamed feeling” and a “horrible impression” of the city. Through this and other letters, which are housed in the City Archives and Special Collections at the New Orleans Public Library, we can see that although Daisy and James Gabrielle state clearly in interviews that they did not intentionally seek out fame, they became celebrities of a sort due to television news coverage. And according to Mayor Morrison, unlike the Gabrielles, the protestors did seek out fame through their actions. By December 4, 1960, New Orleans was in such a state of disarray that Mayor Morrison pleaded for a moratorium on news coverage, arguing that the media created a sense of spectacle. He told the New York Times, “if [the reporters] were not on the scene each day, the demonstrators would not be there.” He argued that protestors would run “to the area to get themselves on television and then [run] home for the afternoon and evening telecasts to see the show.” Of course, it was far too late to stop the process. The celebrity-making power of television would only increase as television’s reach grew.