A couple of months ago I read a New Yorker review of several books about the press and the media in mid-century by the Harvard professor Louis Menand, whom I have never met. The review moved me to order two books from my library system, and one of them, When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America by MIT professor Heather Hendershot (whom I haven't met either) I began reading it. It has left me with mixed feelings indeed. On the one hand, with respect to its actual focus--the network coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the protests that accompanied it--it is a classically well-researched piece of history, and one that gives the journalistic values of that time their due. Hendershot evidently spent many hours watching and transcribing those telecasts--which I remember very well, not having missed a single minute, I am pretty sure, of the CBS ones. Yet she fell somewhat short, I think, of putting her points within an accurate perspective of the politics of that moment, which she did not learn as much about as she might have. And last but not least, she leaves out one very important part of the story. She rightly condemns and documents the calculated brutality of the Chicago police towards protesters, news people, and innocent bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she essentially ignores the protest leaders who came to Chicago, as they freely admitted, with the intentions of provoking violence and discrediting the Democratic Party.
I had forgotten some of the things that Mayor Daley, the head of the most effective urban machine in the US in 1968 and an establishment Democrat, had done to make life harder for protesters, the media, and delegates who supported Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern (on that, more later). A telephone workers' strike made it impossible for the networks and delegations to get enough working phones--and it was magically settled late in the convention. The anti-establishment delegations got the worst seats in convention hall, and faced a lot of hostility from the Chicago police. Daley shamelessly packed the galleries with his own supporters. I had remembered how badly the convention's permanent chairman, House speaker Carl Albert, and handled his responsibilities in order to maintain absolute authority. Late on Tuesday night--the second night of the convention--a long series of credentials challenges was finally over, and it was time to take up the platform, which meant a debate on a minority plank opposing administration policy in Vietnam. Donald Petersen, the chairman of the pro-McCarthy Wisconsin delegation, didn't want that debate to take place in the middle of the night, got Albert's recognition, and moved that the convention adjourn until 4 PM (I think it was) the next day. As Hendershot mentions, Albert immediately ruled the motion out of order. She does not mention that this violated one of the most fundamental of Roberts' rules of order: a motion to adjourn is always in order. A few minutes later, when fury in the hall had persuaded Daley that they had to adjourn, Albert announced that he had rejected the Wisconsin motion because it hadn't specified a time to convene--a lie, it most certainly had. A pro-Humphrey delegate then moved to adjourn until noon the next day, and the motion carried. The debate took place the next afternoon, when most Americans would not see it, and the amendment failed, even though it got more votes than the opposition candidates in the presidential balloting.
Yet in contrast to the enormous amount of work she did on the convention itself, Hendershot misunderstands a great deal about the broader campaign, some of which is highly relevant to the convention. The biggest empty chair at the convention, of course, belonged to Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated on the night that he had won the California primary. Hendershot mentions that George McGovern was a candidate at the convention, but I do not believe that she ever explains that McGovern had joined the race in June for the purpose of giving Kennedy's delegates from California, Indiana, Nebraska, New York and elsewhere someone to cast their ballots for. She also remarks offhandedly at one point that had RFK not died, he might have been the nominee. There she should no better. Yes, RFK had won four primaries and McCarthy had won six--but there were only thirteen in the whole country, and nearly all the non-primary states were solidly for Humphrey, who emerged as LBJ's heir after LBJ withdrew on March 31 and didn't enter any primaries. I was a hard core Democratic political junkie in 1968, as were many of my friends and my entire family--and I did not know one person who thought that Robert Kennedy might be nominated before he was killed. That accounted for some of the bitterness among McCarthy and Kennedy/McGovern supporters--they had won almost every primary they could win.
Hendershot doesn't spend much time on the Republican convention, but what she does say is even more incomplete. She notes that it appeared to run smoothly in comparison to the Democratic one--it could hardly have been otherwise--but refers to it as a simple coronation of Richard Nixon. Nixon did win on the first ballot but only after a lot more drama and behind-the-scenes maneuvering than Humphrey had to go through. Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan were serious candidates, and Nixon made a series of promises to southern delegates that successfully prevented Reagan from winning enough of them away to take away his first-ballot victory.
Henderson does discuss the impact of the Democratic convention thoroughly and accurately. The letters that CBS and NBC received, and many other indicators as well, showed that the vast majority of the American people resented the protestors at the convention, sympathized with the police who beat them rather than the protestors themselves, and felt that the networks had given the protestors too much air time (she shows that they actually got relatively little) and had favored them too much. This was, she stresses, the beginning of middle America's loss of trust in the networks and the mainstream media in general--a development that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew encouraged further after the election. I doubt very much, however, that this began with Chicago. Civil rights marches, antiwar protests, and college revolts had been staples of news coverage since the early 1960s and were taking up more time than ever in 1968. The average middle-aged American distrusted student protestors in particular, whom they regarded as spoiled brats who did not share their elders sense of duty. This was the beginning of a deep political split that has persisted and gotten even worse ever since.
There is another rather bizarre omission from Hendershot's book. Early in the book, laying out different political groups at the convention, she refers to "the street demonstrators. Objectives were mixed among this group, from the 'McCarthy kids,' who were pro-peace college students, to the Mobe [New Mobilization]. an umbrella organization of more radical antiwar groups, to hippies and Yippies there to stage a radical protest against the mainstream. Some of these people were specifically protesting Johnson or Humphrey or the DNC, while others saw the party as so unreformable that the only cure was revolution. Some were very concerned about the convention itself, and others, as they put it, didn't give a fuck who was nominated. These are the groups that have been written about the most in the years following the Chicago convention. We'll just call them the protestors."
Now in fact, the more anti-establishment protesters--the revolutionaries--included Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin. Hendershot doesn't mention that a grand jury was impaneled immediately after the convention to investigate whether they and others had violated a recently enacted law against crossing state lines to incite a riot--and to investigate accusations of police brutality as well. In March 1969 the grand jury indicted those five men and three others, as well as eight police officers. After a long trial in late 1969 and early 1970 before federal judge Julius Hoffman [no relation to Abbie!], those five were convicted--but the convictions were eventually overturned. The prosecution was political and the law highly questionable, in my opinon--but years later, one of them, Jerry Rubin, boldly declared, "We wanted disruption We planned it. . .We were guilty as hell. Guilty as charged." There was an enormous between the average antiwar college student (of which I myself was one by then) and the hard core revolutionaries who thought the whole system was rotten and simply wanted a violent confrontation to expose the brutality of the system and recruit more revolutionaries. And they, I would argue, were among the original "wokesters," if you will, whose ideas have mutated and persisted until today faith in the essential principles of western civilization and of our political system is at an all-time low.
Hendershot pays numerous tributes to Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and the whole ethic of mainstream news at that time. Yet all the while she carefully notes (and in some cases, I think, exaggerates) instances of racism and sexism to suggest, I think, that these were dark ages in drastic need of enlightenment. Similarly, it never occurs to her to ask why black disaffection, which she documents, was so much more bitter and shrill then, in 1968, after two decades of extraordinary legal, economic and political progress. (The answer, I think, is generational.) Perhaps this good book is as good as can be expected to emerge, today, from our academic bubble. I am glad she wrote it.