The Last 50 Years Of Media Bias - A Perspective
By David Greenberg Aug. 23, 2018 WSJ
Mr. Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author, most recently, of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”
The chaos at the 1968 Democratic convention changed American politics—and spurred a conservative backlash against the press that is still with us today
Fifty years ago this month, the Democratic Party imploded. Its 1968 national convention, held in Chicago in late August, devolved into bedlam in the old International Amphitheatre, while police battled protesters outside. The debacle trashed the party’s image and inaugurated almost a quarter-century in which a Democrat would win the White House only once.
But the splintering of the Democratic Party was just one of Chicago’s legacies. The chaos unfolding on television screens also deeply undermined the public’s trust in the press as a reliable source of news about political controversy. The media blamed Chicago’s autocratic Mayor Richard J. Daley and his police force for the violence that shook the city, while many ordinary Americans, more sympathetic to the police, felt that the press had let their sympathy for the antiwar activists warp their coverage.
The charge of bias in elite news organizations has endured. Today, Donald Trump’s anti-media tirades cross new frontiers of rhetoric, as he labels networks purveyors of “fake news” and newspapers “enemies of the people.” But his attacks resonate in part because they extend a critique of professional journalism that conservatives have been making since 1968. In the summer of 1968, everyone knew there was going to be trouble in Chicago. Barbed wire ringed the convention arena, which brimmed with security guards and police who aggressively suppressed any rowdy activity, sometimes with pre-emptive violence. As Time reported, the police attacked “hippies, yippies, New Leftists, revolutionaries, dissident Democrats, newsmen, photographers, passersby, clergymen and at least one cripple.” Full-scale chaos didn’t break loose until the night of Wednesday August 28, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated. At about 6:30 p.m., demonstrators tried to march from Grant Park down to the convention hall, despite having been denied a permit. Clustered near the Hilton hotel on Michigan Avenue, they were set upon by police, who pushed them back until the plate glass window of the hotel restaurant gave way and shattered. Hundreds of unarmed marchers were sent to the hospital that night.
The chaos spelled political disaster for the Democrats, but it also spurred a backlash against the press. For most of the 1960s, media coverage hadn’t been friendly toward the activist left. But in Chicago, journalists witnessed firsthand the unprovoked and excessive police violence against protesters. Many newsmen were beaten up themselves. Reporter John Linstead of the Chicago Daily News, seeing three young women being clubbed, shouted at the officers to stop—only to have them turn on him with their nightsticks, hospitalizing him for two days. Some 63 journalists were roughed up, and 13 had their audio or video equipment destroyed.
Not surprisingly, journalists largely blamed the mayor and the police for the bloodshed that week. And it wasn’t only liberals who joined in. “It sickens me to write this because I am on the police side,” wrote Jack Mabley, a conservative columnist for the Chicago American, before insisting, “This is not the beginning of the police state, it IS the police state.” Walter Cronkite of CBS, normally known for his nonpartisan equanimity, was so sickened that he told viewers, “I want to pack my bags and get out of this city.” He also called the arena’s security guards “thugs”—only to be browbeaten by Mayor Daley into backpedaling.
Even though the violence occurred in plain view, not everyone assessed it the same way. Calls and letters to the newspapers and TV networks overwhelmingly sided with Daley and the police, while attacking the media for bias. The mayor enjoyed support from the city’s working-class white ethnics—Irish, Italians, Poles and others—who had long been a pillar of the Democrats’ winning coalition but were abandoning the party in the 1960s over a raft of social issues. Among these wedge issues was the party’s leaders’ seeming softness on student protesters and urban rioters. Daley held their loyalty with his pledge to uphold law and order, just as Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon would that fall.
These voters saw the violence in Chicago in a different context. Some called attention to protesters who were violent. Others thought that even when the police struck first, the protesters had courted reprisal with their provocations, like threats to put LSD in the water supply. Some, including city officials, blamed the media for showcasing the rioting but ignoring the many occasions when the police effectively managed the unruly hordes. Wondering if they’d gotten the story wrong, some pundits called on their fellow journalists to make more of an effort to hear the other side. Syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft suggested that the press’s fault lay in its estrangement from what he’d been calling “Middle America”—the geographic, political and socio-economic middle of the country, which didn’t share the politics of an increasingly coastal, college-educated, liberal journalism profession. Politicians picked up on the theme as well. Earlier in the 1960s, conservative politicians had already begun claiming that a liberal viewpoint skewed the news. Southern whites assailed coverage of the civil-rights movement, and Barry Goldwater’s supporters charged that the press had demonized their candidate. But now the anti-media feeling took hold as an easily relatable attack line—and not just on the right. Mentions of the Washington Post drew jeers at rallies not just for the segregationist George Wallace but also for the antiwar Eugene McCarthy.
The following year, after being elected president, Nixon made media-bashing a centerpiece of the conservative cultural populism that he hoped would bring disillusioned Democrats into the Republican fold. In a pair of fall speeches, Vice President Spiro Agnew laid into the networks and leading newspapers, alleging that they had a political agenda. The administration promoted a book by TV Guide writer Edith Efron called “The News Twisters,” one of the first best-sellers to argue that the media, while purporting to be objective, slanted the news to the left.
Journalists and scholars continue to debate the objectivity of the press. The most persuasive research suggests that while the political views of national reporters do lean left, most news journalists—as opposed to columnists and others tasked with offering their opinions—care most about getting the story right. Recognition and esteem accrue not to those who editorialize but to those who get scoops, identify important stories or report with depth. Though no one can be perfectly objective, the individuals and institutions that eschew a party line in favor of honest reporting tend to win the Pulitzer Prizes, attract dollars from advertisers and retain a broad spectrum of readers.
Nonetheless, the charge that the major media outlets harbor a liberal bias has grown as a staple of Republican rhetoric. It is taken as an article of faith by many on the right, and plenty of other Americans as well. It was popularized most successfully by Nixon’s former television adviser, Roger Ailes, who went on to found Fox News, a network committed to counterbalancing that alleged slant. In reporting on the turbulence in Chicago, Newsweek noted that the country was deeply polarized over both racial conflict and the Vietnam War, to such an extent that “even the most conscientious newsman finds it difficult to stay uninvolved.” While claims of liberal media bias are often exaggerated or used for political ends, a polarized political climate does make it hard for news reporters to keep their political opinions in check and to maintain their credibility with audiences across the spectrum. That was true in 1968, and it is probably even more true today.