In the weeks leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley turned his town into a fortress. He sealed the manhole covers with tar, so protesters couldn’t hide in the sewers. He installed a fence topped with barbed wire around the Chicago International Amphitheater. He put the entire police force of 12,000 men on 12-hour shifts and called in over 5,000 National Guardsmen. About 1,000 Secret Service and FBI agents were also on duty, as the city braced for the 10,000 protesters who would soon arrive, wound up by a year of political assassinations, urban riots and the raging Vietnam War.
What could possibly go wrong?
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With the whole world watching, the three major news networks brought the answer to that question into millions of Americans’ living rooms. They spared barely a second of the ensuing mayhem in their coverage—and in the course of doing so sparked a national debate about objectivity and journalistic integrity. The liberal-minded tuned in and saw textbook police brutality and “Gestapo tactics,” in the words of Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff. But millions of Middle Americans, the citizens Richard M. Nixon would later immortalize as the “silent majority,” saw an entirely different display of excess—on the part not of the police, but of the TV networks.
The Archie Bunkers of America, impassive to the hippies’ and yippies’ plight, saw them playing the newsmen like a fiddle, getting free publicity for their cause and, ultimately, getting what they deserved from the police. The protesters hurled profanities at the cops. They engaged in street theater, nominating a pig as the Democratic presidential candidate. They attempted to sleep in the parks (defying the 11 p.m. curfew) and to hold marches even though permits had been denied by the city. Allen Ginsberg even led the kids in chanting “Om.” The “establishment” response was swift and violent. As right-wing pundit Robert Novak later observed, “The demonstrators came looking for trouble and got what they wanted.” Viewed from that perspective, the 1968 Democratic convention was an inflection point for conservatives who would protest that the mainstream media was, in words that now echo from the White House, “the enemy of the people.”
The violence in Chicago was all-encompassing, and longhairs weren’t the only targets of what the federal government’s Walker Report later described as a “police riot” in the streets outside the convention. Delegates from the convention themselves—accountants in Brooks Brothers shirts, librarians with prim leatherette handbags—who wandered onto Michigan Avenue found themselves flying ass-over-tea-kettle through plate glass windows. Journalists with clearly displayed credentials were attacked, including, most notoriously, CBS’ Dan Rather.
Today, it’s taken for granted that much of our news coverage is slanted left or right, but in the network era there was still a deeply held belief that news could (and should) be completely neutral. The tumult of the 1960s tore apart that notion, even as many viewers struggled to hang onto it. We tend to think of the pre-Watergate era as an Edenic vista of trust and fidelity toward our institutions, especially the media—but the skepticism and stubborn partisan distrust that many feel today was present then, too. The real-time controversy and spin surrounding the shocking images that came from Chicago, many of them revisited here for the first time since August 1968, laid the foundation for the cries of “liberal bias” that hound and undermine the mainstream news media to this day.
With all due respect to NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, CBS’ Walter Cronkite was the pre-eminent emcee of the whole affair. Cronkite’s obvious animus toward right-wingers Robert Taft in 1948 and Barry Goldwater in 1964 had caused some political friction, but he was generally seen by most TV viewers as a moderate, establishment type of guy. He was perplexed by hippies, including his own daughters, with their “indescribable” outfits that looked like they came from a “remnant sale.” He recognized that the young generation no doubt saw him as “an old fuddy-duddy.”
It was this very middle-of-the-road squareness that had made his 1968 Report from Vietnam so impactful. The networks had dutifully reported JFK’s and LBJ’s pronouncements on imminent victory in Vietnam for some time, and Cronkite himself had been suckered as well by the carefully managed news conferences and briefings he had attended in Saigon in 1965. At that point, he was, as biographer Douglas Brinkley put it, “a cautious hawk.” When the Tet Offensive erupted in early 1968, Cronkite returned to Vietnam for a less varnished picture, and upon his return he reluctantly reported that America was facing a stalemate in Southeast Asia, at best. President Lyndon B. Johnson was agog, proclaiming (perhaps apocryphally) that “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Heading into Chicago, then, Cronkite had already pointed out the elephant in the room with regard to Vietnam. This may have been controversial to hawks, but CBS wasn’t deluged with angry viewer mail. To the majority of viewers, Cronkite’s Vietnam broadcast was more of a wake-up call than a partisan assault. “Uncle Walter” was regularly rated in surveys as the most trusted man in America.
But Chicago was different. Not just because Cronkite was sympathetic to the youngsters in the streets, but because he lost his cool. After his correspondent, Dan Rather, was punched in the solar plexus by a Chicago plainclothes security man on the delegate floor, Cronkite let loose, saying, “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.” Asked once why Cronkite was so trusted, his wife had responded, “he looks like everyone’s dentist.” But in calling out Daley’s thugs, he had given his conservative viewers a surprise root canal.
Cronkite thanked Rather “for staying in there, pitching despite every handicap that they can possibly put in our way from free flow of information at this Democratic National Convention.” The atmosphere of control sometimes manifested itself in crudely obvious ways: Every day that the convention started late or was delayed by unruly delegates who happened to disappear when a vote was needed, the house band would fill up time with excruciatingly upbeat show tunes. They even took cues from Daley, who would signal whether voices or songs of protest from delegates needed drowning out.
Cronkite clearly suspected that Daley had purposely avoided resolving the electrical workers’ strike in order to hinder network coverage. When resolution of the strike was announced just an hour after Humphrey’s Vietnam plank was confirmed (which, by extension, confirmed his pending nomination), Cronkite announced on-air that it was “one of those amazing, almost unbelievable coincidences that have marked this whole convention in the restrictions on the press. … little things here and there that just so amazingly seem to come together to force the press into a mold that the convention managers wanted us to fit into here.”
The formal union vote would take place in just a few days, which would end not only the strike but also “the total news blackout”—an exaggeration illustrating the anchorman’s extreme frustration. But, “of course, it won’t matter then,” he added, because the networks would be long gone.
The snark might have seemed like unfair editorializing to some viewers, but Cronkite simply understood how Daley operated. The consummate professional, Cronkite also tried to express his frustration in a more neutral, even folksy way: “Dick Daley’s a fine fellow, but when his strong hand is turned agin’ you, as the press has felt it was on this occasion, he’s a tough adversary.”
It pained Cronkite in particular that he could not show breaking news live as it unfurled. When CBS cut away from the amphitheater to footage of police violence, Cronkite carefully noted over and over again that it was recorded, not live, because of the electrical workers’ strike. The videotapes—and some hastily developed 16mm film—had to be transported 50 blocks by car or motorcycle. And the mayor didn’t even allow that the networks might break the speed limit.
Daley prepared for the convention like a general going into battle. When rioting had erupted in Chicago four months earlier following The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the police had been unable to seize control. Venting his disappointment, Daley had said that his police superintendent should have ordered his force to “shoot to maim” looters and “shoot to kill” arsonists. He vowed not to be caught short again.
The mayor was a masterful machine politician, but he lacked nuance in his understanding of mass media. He refused permits for protesters, as if that would keep them from protesting and, therefore, prevent journalists from covering them. He had crude “We Love Mayor Daley” signs made, and had city workers to hold them up in front of the cameras. He stuck decals of himself on the phones in every delegate’s hotel room, which was a particularly dunderheaded move given that the city was in the middle of an electrical workers’ strike that made the phones all but useless.
To his advantage, however, was the fact that he had microphone access whenever he wanted it. But at a key moment, he pointedly chose not to take the mic. When Ribicoff made his crack about “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago” from the dais, Daley stood up and shouted from the floor “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker, go home!” The forceful exclamation, shown on live TV, was later deciphered by lip readers. Friends said Daley called Ribicoff not a “fucker,” but a “faker.” Enemies suggested he had called him not a “Jew” but a “kike.” The CBS newsman who was closest simply reported that Daley had gone bright red with anger.
At age 66, Daley was not a man of the TV era. He was certainly not plugged into the fact that the Democratic convention had become not only a political event, but also a TV show. The conventions had been telecast since 1948, when so few Americans had sets that the coverage made little difference in how the parties presented themselves. Delegates were barely visible through clouds of tobacco smoke, and the floors were knee-deep in discarded newspapers. By 1960, the year that, as per Theodore White’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, television had won the election for John F. Kennedy, convention organizers were fully aware that they were putting on a production. It’s incredible, but true, that eight years later, Mayor Daley didn’t know—or didn’t care—that hurling obscenities at Ribicoff on national TV might backfire on him.
Daley had erred not only in his megalomaniacal self-promotion and encouragement of police brutality, but also in putting extra effort into controlling the TV networks. They did not get enough floor passes. They could not park their news vans where they needed them. They could broadcast live only from within the amphitheater. When a UPI messenger was roughly tossed out for no reason, in a typical “episode of strong arm tactics,” Cronkite observed that “about the worst thing you can say to these people here is that you’re from the press, apparently. They don’t recognize that as any sort of a pass.” Obviously, he objected specifically to physical assaults on reporters, but he was more generally disturbed by the contempt and lack of professionalism on the part of Daley’s goons.
What was the evidence of media bias in Chicago? The anchors called those bloodied in the streets “protesters,” “anti-Vietnam activists,” “young people” and “hippies,” while Daley insisted they were all “terrorists.” Further, Daley complained that no violent provocation on the part of said “terrorists” was shown. But the networks had kept a keen eye out, and insisted that they had not witnessed any. The footage played incessantly over the past 50 years has certainly not exculpated the police and National Guardsmen.
Notably, however, additional disturbing footage that hasn’t been replayed since 1968 adds nuance to our understanding of the networks’ coverage. Two CBS sequences in particular stand out:
In one contentious late-night interview, Dan Rather pressed a jolly, red Thermos cup-swigging Mayor Daley about the smothering presence of troops downtown, a presence confirmed by images CBS flashed on the screen at precisely this moment. Daley characterized the report about the troops as “propaganda by you and your station and a lot of Eastern interests.” Complaint letters from all over America would attack CBS for being unfair to Daley, and no doubt many were disgruntled by the fact that CBS had intercut the Daley interview with footage of the guardsmen. But the network was simply making a perceptive editorial choice. Daley would neither confirm nor deny a fact for which there was clear visual evidence. If CBS hadn’t cut to the footage, it would have been Rather’s word against Daley’s. By cutting away, CBS showed that simply calling something “propaganda” did not make it so.
A second, more visceral example of supposed editorial “bias” took place 15 minutes after the delegates left the hall, at the end of the convention’s harrowing third day. Cronkite suggested that some footage shot earlier “perhaps describes most symbolically the situation in the city tonight.” Explicitly declining to add a voice-over, he said “It seems to us that these pictures speak for themselves.”
The film showed a respectable-looking, middle-aged woman who had stopped her two-door sedan in the street to scoop up as many tear-gassed demonstrators as she could. They are clearly strangers to her. She immediately finds that the National Guardsmen have surrounded her car and will not let her pass. The faceless, gas-masked guardsmen point their bayonets at her tires, as if to slash them. Then, one of them points a large weapon into her car, just a few inches from her head. Cronkite had eschewed narration, but here interjects a quick explanation that this is, in fact, a grenade launcher. The Good Samaritan protests: “I just want to get them out of here so they won’t cause you any trouble.” More tear gas is suddenly released, without warning, and she rolls up her windows. A young businessman in coat and tie rushes past the camera, in agony. It’s a four-minute scene that seems to last an eternity.
Cronkite responded with passionate neutrality. “Ultimately the woman was permitted, as you saw, to turn around the car, drive away from the area. You saw the whole episode from the beginning to the end. … We do not know whether the young people were wanted for anything. … We saw the episode, at any rate.” His point was that such drama simply needed to be seen to be understood. The scene spoke directly to Cronkite’s own demographic: the white, middle-class professional. This woman was not a troublemaker or a hippie. What the hell was going on?
Over the horrific nighttime scenes shown earlier, Cronkite had said, “The interesting thing about this is that almost universally the bystanders have been horror stricken apparently by this action of the police. … We’ve had a lot of telephone calls and complaints from people who saw scenes and wanted to report some of them, people of substance in the community.” Including the grenade launcher footage was a choice that even Cronkite himself could not have seen as completely neutral: It purposely made a point about the intensity of the violence. But to him, and his network, this was not bias—just good reporting.
The next day, Cronkite interviewed Daley in an exchange that Douglas Brinkley would later describe as “the low-water mark” of Cronkite’s career. During the “interview,” Cronkite mostly just sat and listened while the mayor defended his actions. Having been accused of bias by telegrams and phone calls streaming in since CBS had gone off-air the night before, a wounded Cronkite attempted to cloak himself in professional neutrality. He closed out by suggesting that he and the mayor had not come to “a complete meeting of the minds” as to how the Michigan Avenue situation could have been handled differently, and Daley responded, “we never will, but that shouldn’t be any reason why we can’t be friends.” They shook hands, and Daley departed. They were not friends, of course, and would not be. Any implication to the contrary was as phony as a $3 bill. The feeble exchange had laid bare the limits of “journalistic balance” and pre-cable news “cordiality.”
After the convention, Daley demanded airtime to respond to what he considered unfair coverage. CBS got out of it precisely because the network had already given him the softball interview with Cronkite. NBC offered the mayor time on their panel discussion shows, which he declined. Finally, he commissioned an hourlong film that aired nationwide on TV and radio and focused on inflammatory comments made by activists before the convention and defensive comments made by police afterward. It wasn’t very convincing, but Daley had had his say, and the Federal Communications Commission’s notions of fairness had been satisfied.
By early October of 1968, CBS received 8,670 letters about Chicago, and 60 Minutes’ Harry Reasoner reported that the mail ran 11-to-1 against the network. A viewer in Ohio wrote, “I’ve never seen such a disgusting display of one-sided reporting in all of the years I’ve watched television.” From South Carolina, a letter writer griped, “Your coverage was … slanted in favor of the hoodlums and beatniks and slurred the police trying to preserve order.” A North Carolina viewer complained that, “When a great network refers to trouble makers as THESE YOUNG PEOPLE and in such a … tender tone, that is bias.” A New Yorker even suggested that the police had engaged in righteous violence: “Our Lord whipped the money lenders out of the temple. Are you going to accuse Him of brutality?”
The notion that simply showing police violence was evidence of liberal bias didn’t begin with Chicago. It traces back rather directly to TV coverage of civil rights, when white Southerners complained that the networks ignored their perspective and were manipulated by publicity seekers within the movement. By the late 1950s, many of the same people who would later object to the network’s coverage in Chicago had already taken to calling CBS the “Communist” or “Coon” or “Colored Broadcasting Company.” The same bigoted wordplay made NBC the “Nigger Broadcasting Company.” Alabama’s Bull Connor summed up the situation with an aphorism that wouldn’t seem out of place in some conservative circles today: “The trouble with this country is communism, socialism and journalism.”
If the idea of network coverage being driven by liberal bias wasn’t new to the 1968 convention, the heat and undeniable violence of the convention was a perfect opportunity for white, conservative, middle Americans to coalesce in their resentment—and not just in the South, but across the nation. America was falling apart at the seams, and the network news was seen as complicit by virtue of recording what was happening.
Over time, the Chicago convention has been reduced from the complicated four-day event that it was to the horrific scenes of street violence that took place there. Indeed, the pantheon of traumatic, iconic images of the 1960s could be boiled down to Cronkite reporting JFK’s death; urban riots, in Watts, Newark and beyond; Bobby Kennedy’s assassination; coverage of King’s assassination; the victims of the My Lai Massacre, a Vietcong being shot in the head by a South Vietnamese officer, and a naked, child running, covered in napalm; and the Chicago convention “police riot,” with its helmeted shock troops.
Narrative, of course, is how we make sense of history. But this sort of pastiche can make it all too easy for us to ignore what’s jarring or contradictory, and it flattens our understanding of a period as rich with contradiction and factionalism as our own. The reactionary voices of the 1960s don’t ring as loudly in our historical memory as the more progressive ones, and that leaves us unduly caught off-guard when they reappear at the front of our national consciousness—as any shell-shocked liberal would have attested on November 9, 2016.
Journalists face very different challenges than they did in Chicago in 1968, but as the president vilifies the media as “the enemy of the people,” and reporters have occasion to attend his rallies with a security detail in tow, it’s clear that the specter of violence still looms large. There is also ferocious disagreement over the meaning of what we view on social media or television, a disagreement that clearly is not native to our own time. What is obvious to some is not to others, who would contend, for example, that “truth is not truth.”
The violent images of Chicago that have dominated our cultural narrative of the event leave out so much more than they show. By re-examining media coverage of that event, we can understand better not only America’s past, but also the forces that define so much of our present and are unlikely to be absent from our future.