It is no secret that the news media are in crisis, with troubling implications for American democracy. Jobs for reporters are scarce, partly because local newspapers are fast disappearing; in many communities local government proceeds with no journalistic oversight at all. News has largely migrated from print to cable television and the Web. Until a few years ago, Starbucks sold local and national newspapers at its eight thousand–plus locations in the United States, but it has abandoned the practice for lack of demand. Most young people get the news from social media such as TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. News websites do attract many visitors, and nightly news broadcasts on the TV networks still enjoy large audiences, but these are not adequate replacements for in-depth print reporting. Not long ago, every other rider on the New York City subway seemed to be reading a physical newspaper. Now they gaze at their phones, and not, in most cases, for the day’s news.
These developments have unavoidable financial consequences. No one has discovered an economic model—other than a paywall, something viable for only a handful of national newspapers—to support serious political journalism. In the nineteenth century newspapers were generally financed by political parties, in the twentieth by advertising, now considerably diminished. Both sources of funds might be preferable to relying on the long-term commitment of billionaire publishers like Jeff Bezos (owner of The Washington Post) or on online ads, which create the temptation to shore up income by maximizing clicks via the use of outrageous language and are subject to algorithms that drive people to sites that reinforce their existing beliefs. All this makes impossible the public-spirited dialogue necessary in a democracy.
Then there is a crisis of a different kind. Newspapers have suffered from the broader decline of respect for once well-regarded institutions such as universities, now under assault as hotbeds of “woke” indoctrination. Donald Trump went so far as to declare the press an “enemy of the people.” Few persons outside the media seem to care that the leading presidential candidates—Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Joe Biden—have all but given up holding news conferences or subjecting themselves to interviews with reporters.
Journalism’s crisis began many years ago, but in her new book, When the News Broke, Heather Hendershot identifies a specific moment when broad public regard for the news media gave way to the widespread belief that they could not be trusted. This was in August 1968, during the infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a gathering remembered today for the violence directed against young demonstrators by the police and the National Guard. As they faced assault on the city streets, protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching!” They knew that earlier in the 1960s, televised images of violence against civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Selma, and other cities had galvanized public support for the civil rights movement. But this time, Hendershot says, violence in the streets had a different result. A large majority of TV viewers sided with the police and excoriated the networks for liberal bias.
Hendershot, who teaches film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presents a vivid account of the events in Chicago, chronicling the actions of a cast of characters that includes TV reporters, demonstrators, and Mayor Richard J. Daley. The last of the old-time city bosses, Daley was so desperate to use the convention to enhance his own reputation that he had a picture of his smiling face attached to every telephone in a hotel that housed reporters and on billboards on the way into town from the airport, and ordered fences constructed to block views of Chicago’s slums. To ensure that television conveyed the image of a Democratic Party unified in enthusiasm for its nominee for president, Hubert Humphrey, Daley had counterfeit tickets distributed to some five thousand machine operatives. Arriving at sessions early, they filled the seats in the galleries, roaring their approval when Humphrey’s name was mentioned and leaving little room for supporters of other candidates. (Nearly a century earlier, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign managers pulled off the same trick at the Republican National Convention of 1860, which also met in Chicago.)
Thousands of young people representing various elements of Sixties radical politics descended on Chicago. They included members of Students for a Democratic Society, energized by opposition to the war in Vietnam. Their hero and Humphrey’s chief rival for the nomination was Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, a politician who seemed to prefer discussing philosophy to wooing voters but whose opposition to the war had inspired a small army of students to campaign on his behalf in the New Hampshire primary. There were hippies anticipating a rock concert and other, less lawful forms of stimulation, and Yippies, members of the Youth International Party, whose leaders included Abbie Hoffman, a self-proclaimed cultural revolutionary who believed that generational conflict had the same potential for disrupting the status quo as class conflict had in the 1930s. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Hoffman realized that television’s penetration of all levels of American society offered radicals the opportunity to reach a mass audience with carefully staged actions that dramatized injustice. One group was not strongly represented in the streets of Chicago: African Americans. They knew firsthand how well the city police deserved their reputation for brutality. When Daley spoke of the police adopting a “shoot to kill” approach to disorder, their experience taught that he was not kidding.
For readers of a certain age, Hendershot’s account of what transpired in the Chicago convention hall and the city’s streets will rouse dramatic memories. On Sunday, August 25, the night before the convention opened, demonstrators gathered in Lincoln Park, adjacent to one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. They hoped to remain there all night, but the city imposed a curfew, and police used clubs to clear the park. Late the next evening, removing their ID badges, they used mace and tear gas to do it again, beating journalists in the bargain. Then came the third day, when the convention heard speeches supporting various candidates and nominated Humphrey for president. Meanwhile, thousands of police and members of the National Guard assaulted a crowd of protesters from Grant Park trying to march south on Michigan Avenue, opposite the Conrad Hilton in downtown Chicago, driving them against the giant windows of the hotel’s Haymarket bar. Those not lacerated by broken glass suffered head injuries from police billy clubs, and McCarthy’s headquarters, on an upper floor of the Hilton, was transformed into a makeshift hospital ward. The name Haymarket itself evoked another era of Chicago’s violent history. In 1886, after a bomb exploded at a labor rally in Haymarket Square, the police responded with wild gunfire, killing or injuring dozens of people, including some of their own. Self-discipline has never been a characteristic of the Chicago police.
As news from the Hilton filtered into the convention hall, located several miles from the hotel, the week’s most celebrated verbal exchange took place. Departing from his prepared speech nominating Senator George McGovern of South Dakota for president, Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut declared, “With George McGovern as president of the United States, we wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!” Enraged, Daley unleashed a stream of invective at Ribicoff from the convention floor. As he was not near a microphone, few people heard his words. But self-appointed lip-readers soon deciphered them from film: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home!” (A video of the tirade is available on YouTube; interested viewers can make out some of Daley’s phraseology.) On the convention’s fourth and final day, a group of protesters led by the Black comedian and activist Dick Gregory attempted to march from downtown to the convention amphitheater. The peaceful march was blocked by police, after which the National Guard dispersed the crowd with tear gas.
The Chicago convention took place during one of the most chaotic years in modern history. Dramatic occurrences succeeded one another with such rapidity that society itself seemed to be unraveling. “No convention ever had such events for prelude,” wrote Norman Mailer, who was there that week (though, unlike most of the reporters, he spent part of his time at the local Playboy Club). In January North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops launched the Tet Offensive, which gave the lie to the Johnson administration’s pronouncements that American victory was near. A few days later, members of the South Carolina Highway Patrol killed three unarmed Black civil rights demonstrators at the state university at Orangeburg. In March came McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, leading to Lyndon Johnson’s abandonment of his reelection campaign. Four days later King was assassinated, setting off the greatest outbreak of urban violence in the country’s history. (This was when Daley issued his “shoot to kill” order.) On April 23 students at Columbia occupied campus buildings to protest the university’s involvement in military research and its plan to appropriate parts of a park in nearby Harlem to build a gymnasium. A week later, in a preview of the turmoil in Chicago, New York police violently removed the occupiers and cleared the campus by assaulting students, faculty, and bystanders. June brought the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who was also seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
The uprisings of 1968 were not confined to the United States. Challenges by young radicals to existing power structures swept the globe, as did authorities’ violent responses. Mass antiwar demonstrations took place in London, Paris, Tokyo, and numerous other cities. In May a nationwide student walkout began in France. Unlike in the US, millions of workers joined the striking youths, temporarily paralyzing the country. A few days before the Democratic convention assembled, Soviet tanks entered Prague, putting an end to the effort to reform Czech communism in the name of “socialism with a human face.” In October, on the eve of the Mexico City Olympics, police fired into an immense crowd of unarmed students demanding greater democracy, killing hundreds. Unfortunately, Hendershot pays little attention to how the American media covered the international dimensions of 1968, thereby missing the opportunity to assess whether political polarization and distrust of the media were exacerbated in other countries.
Those alarmed by our current level of political discourse and the widespread dissemination of “fake news” may find it tempting to look back on the years before 1968 as a golden age of civility in the media, when journalists enjoyed widespread respect and the three television networks presented nightly news broadcasts that gave millions of Americans a shared civic experience and a reservoir of commonly accepted information. Walter Cronkite, the anchor of CBS’s evening news show, was reputed to be “the most trusted man in America.” When he announced after a visit to Vietnam early in 1968 that the US could not win the war, President Johnson was heard remarking that if he had lost Cronkite, he had “lost middle America.”
Hendershot eschews nostalgia, making it clear that news coverage before 1968 left much to be desired. For many years, especially but not exclusively in the South, the mainstream press published articles about the civil rights movement that denigrated demonstrators, defended segregation, and included the names of Black men and women who sought to register to vote, resulting frequently in economic retribution such as the loss of their jobs. By the mid-1960s, as the movement peaked, the news media became more sympathetic. But local newspaper editors remained leading figures in the southern power structure. Hendershot chastises the networks for ignoring the racism still present in the Democratic Party in 1968, before segregationists made the transition en masse to the Republicans as a result of Nixon’s “southern strategy.” The Chicago convention witnessed challenges to seating all-white delegations from several southern states; the networks paid little heed. (Until 1966 the emblem of Alabama’s Democratic Party, shown in every voting booth in the state because widespread illiteracy meant many voters needed a visual representation of the party to cast a ballot, was a rooster beneath a banner with the words “WHITE SUPREMACY.”) Black newspapers covered the challenges—nearly all unsuccessful—far more effectively than the mainstream media.
Before the Chicago convention, complaints of bias in news coverage were more likely to arise from the left than from the right. In the 1950s, much of the press reported as fact Senator Joseph McCarthy’s unsubstantiated charges of Communist infiltration of the government. Until 1968 the news media displayed a remarkable credulity about official claims of military progress in Vietnam and failed to examine in any depth the rising tide of nationalism in the colonial world that helped explain the conflict. For that, one had to read niche publications such as I.F. Stone’s Weekly, The National Guardian, The Nation, and the underground press, which had emerged as the New Left’s most significant counterinstitution. The Columbia Daily Spectator, the university’s student paper, and WKCR, its radio station, did a far better job reporting on the crisis on campus in 1968 than did The New York Times, which repeatedly downplayed police violence.
Interspersed with Hendershot’s detailed description of what happened in the convention amphitheater and the streets of Chicago is a careful analysis of network coverage of the convention. It is startling to learn, given what so many people think they remember, how little TV time was actually devoted to film of police assaulting demonstrators. Cameramen filmed only seventeen minutes of footage of the violence outside the Hilton. Hendershot points out that in NBC’s thirty-five hours of broadcasting, only one hour showed street protests. Today, nearly every person in the street carries a smartphone that makes it possible to record live action and immediately post photos and videos online. Such a world could not have been imagined in 1968, when film had to be developed and edited and it took an hour or more for the images to appear on the nation’s television screens.
But the obstacles faced by journalists were as much political as technological. Along with the conflict in the streets, a battle raged over control of news coverage. Mayor Daley did nothing to hide his contempt for journalists. Some were physically assaulted by security guards on the convention floor and others manhandled by police on the streets. Daley tried to confine live reporting to the inside of the convention hall, and the state of technology favored him. TV cameras were bulky and difficult to maneuver when crowds and police were in motion and tear gas was in the air. Networks could not send live images from anywhere but the amphitheater—also Daley’s doing. Meanwhile, electrical workers, probably egged on by the mayor, were on strike, so reporters could not gain access to additional telephone lines.
Publicity was key to the Yippies’ hopes for the demonstrations. As Hoffman put it, they believed images of chaos would “fuck up” the country’s self-image as a “democratic society being run very peacefully,” turning viewers against the political establishment. According to Hoffman biographer Jonah Raskin, at one planning meeting the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin said the aim was to “force a confrontation in which the establishment hits down hard”—to which Hoffman responded, “On that theory the only way that Chicago would be a success is if 20 of us got shot to death.” The civil rights leader Jesse Jackson had advised demonstration organizers that if TV showed Black victims of the police, white viewers would not care, but violence against whites would make headlines. Some demonstrators shouted epithets and threw things at the police, hoping for an overreaction—which, of course, police are supposed to know how to avoid.
How did the chaos in the streets of Chicago affect network coverage? As Hendershot points out, the media had long normalized the idea that there were two and only two sides to every issue, with the truth lying somewhere in the middle. She shows that until well into the convention, television newsmen clung to the ideal of impartiality. They seemed to accept Daley’s claim that “troublemakers” were responsible for disorder and the police had no choice but to step in. Then, as images from the Hilton became available, the networks dropped, for the moment, the idea of neutrality. CBS aired film of the National Guard entering the hotel with fixed bayonets and gas masks, and scenes from the impromptu hospital in McCarthy’s suite. It showed a National Guard soldier pointing a grenade launcher through the open car window of a woman who found herself caught in the confrontation near the Hilton and simply wanted to escape. Cronkite spoke of “naked violence in the streets” and interviewed bandaged tourists. Hendershot notes that the networks did not show the most extreme use of force, but the bloody images they did air changed the tone of the coverage. The CBS analyst Eric Sevareid declared, “This is the most disgraceful night in the history of American political conventions.” On NBC, Chet Huntley gravely announced, “What we’ve seen requires no comment.”
If the demonstrators craved publicity, they certainly received it. Network coverage of the convention enjoyed the highest ratings of any television program in 1968. But a majority did not like what they saw. This reaction is crucial to Hendershot’s overall argument about when the news “broke” and divisiveness took off. She effectively uses the letters and telegrams that poured into the three networks’ headquarters and public opinion polls to demonstrate that most Americans viewed protesters as “militants” or “terrorists” and network coverage as “prejudiced and one-sided.” By this time, public opinion had turned against the Vietnam War. But all the same, most viewers seemed to believe that demonstrators got what they deserved.
Many Americans were fed up with a pointless war but also with Black uprisings, campus disruptions, and antiwar demonstrations. They craved order. Here was Nixon’s putative silent majority, in fact anxious to express its fear that civic peace was disintegrating. And it looked to the police, who still enjoyed a positive image in the white mainstream, to restore it. This was not true among the Black community. A public opinion survey conducted in October 1968 found that only 19 percent of respondents thought the police had used excessive force; one third said they employed the right amount, and 25 percent said not enough. But 63 percent of Black respondents said police had used too much force.
Alarmed by the negative reactions to their coverage, TV journalists retreated to the tried and true method of presenting both sides. On day four, NBC became the first network to interview Chicago policemen, who predictably said that accusations against them were “completely unfounded” and that street demonstrators never accomplished anything. That day Daley, who had shunned the press, agreed to speak on camera with Cronkite. Hendershot calls the resulting interview “astonishingly terrible” and a “low point” of the anchorman’s career. Cronkite allowed Daley to repeat without challenge falsehood after falsehood, including gross exaggerations of the provocations aimed at the police and the claim that injured reporters had not identified themselves as such. The mayor blithely declared that he wanted free and full coverage of the convention.
The interview ended with Cronkite’s speaking of the “politeness and the genuine friendliness” of the Chicago police. Daley was later outraged when an official investigation overseen by a prominent local attorney described the events of August 1968 as a “police riot.” In response, he sponsored a film with the enigmatic title What Trees Do They Plant?, which lauded police behavior and insisted the networks had gotten the story wrong. Daley marketed the film to television stations not affiliated with the networks, finding few takers. But the mayor had won a major propaganda victory, and Hoffman and the others had learned a painful lesson. TV was not the young radicals’ secret weapon.
The phrase “law and order” was not widely used until Nixon’s presidency, but the idea was present in Chicago’s aftermath. Even Humphrey invoked it in his speech accepting the presidential nomination. “We do not want a police state,” he declared. “But we need a state of law and order.” “Law and order” merged legitimate fears about crime with hostility to Black activism, even though nearly all the Chicago demonstrators were white. The notion fueled Nixon’s successful run for president and helped justify the transition from the war on poverty to the “wars” on crime and drugs of the 1970s and 1980s. Today it remains a mantra among Republicans. Similarly, according to Hendershot, it was after the Chicago convention that accusations of “liberal media bias” took root in the national political consciousness.
Movement activists thought that because of the televised violence they had scored a great triumph. The New York Times ran an article entitled “Chicago Protesters Say Police Action on Television Will ‘Radicalize’ Many Viewers.” But the year ended with Nixon’s election. His margin of less than one percent of the popular vote might cast doubt on the idea that televised disorder discredited the Democratic Party. Yet the southern segregationist George Wallace, running as an independent, garnered 13 percent of the vote. Simple arithmetic suggested that combining the support of Nixon and Wallace would produce a formidable political majority. People talked of revolution, wrote Todd Gitlin, an early leader of SDS and subsequently a chronicler of the history of the 1960s, but 1968 ended in counterrevolution.
Was that year, then, one of those turning points at which history failed to turn, as the historian G.M. Trevelyan described 1848? There is a widespread myth that the Sixties ended in 1968. But radicalism did not suddenly disappear. By the early 1970s social movements dotted the political landscape, including the second wave of feminism, gay liberation, and environmentalism, while the Black struggle continued. All survive to this day, and all have changed American life in dramatic ways. The antiwar movement did not reach its peak until 1970 when, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four protesting students at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard, a strike paralyzed campuses throughout the country. And in 1975 the war ended.
The story Hendershot tells is often riveting. Readers may wonder, however, why she says almost nothing about how newspapers, magazines, radio, and other news venues covered the convention. All sorts of media were present in Chicago, from the Black press to community radio stations and underground newspapers. TV may have reached millions of Americans instantaneously, but other coverage also deserves attention. Despite the book’s success in reconstructing a seminal episode in modern American history, moreover, Hendershot’s interpretive framework is not entirely persuasive. Was the Chicago convention the moment when the polarization of American political culture that persists to this day was born? Another way of putting it might be that responses to the convention reflected and magnified existing polarization. The country was already deeply divided by the war, the civil rights revolution, and the countercultural rebellion. In 1966 Ronald Reagan had been elected governor of California after a campaign that blamed student radicals for disorder. The backlash was already present in 1968, even if television exacerbated it.
When did the decade of the Sixties end? Did it end at all? We sometimes seem to be reliving those years that did so much to shape our world.