POLARIZATIONWhy 1968 Still Matters

By Peter Dizikes

Published 6 February 2023

A new book argues that perception of the media coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention explores gave rise to anger at the media which became part of our culture wars. Matters have moved to a new extreme today, with claims from many quarters that factual reported news is simply fake, with no attempt to demonstrate such assertions. False claims about the 2020 presidential election, for instance, have flourished despite no evidence supporting them.

“The whole world is watching,” protestors famously chanted outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as police beat them.

That might not have been literally true, but it was close enough. The convention was the top-rated telecast for all of 1968 in the U.S., with 90 percent of U.S. households tuning in for an average of 9.5 hours. Many viewers had a strong reaction to the chaotic events being broadcast. And a majority of those who wrote letters afterward to the three national television networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — expressed unhappiness with the things they had just witnessed.

These people were not angry about the use of force against the protestors, however. As MIT Professor Heather Hendershot chronicles in a new book, many Americans were upset with the news coverage because they deemed it too sympathetic to the protestors.

“It just took the Chicago Convention to make us really blast you for your prejudiced and one-sided coverage,” one airline pilot wrote to famed CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, asking why the network would reward “filthy, screaming minority groups with free TV coverage and at the same time subject millions of true American citizens with such sickening acts?”

Hendershot explores these events in a new book, “When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America,” published by the University of Chicago Press. In it, Hendershot chronicles the turmoil on the streets and inside the convention hall, and shows that the convention was a key inflection point in the relationship between politics and media. Right-wingers had accused mainstream news organizations of unfair coverage during Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign of 1964, but following the 1968 Chicago convention, such accusations would take root among a wider swath of people and become an ongoing feature of contemporary culture wars and political polarization.

“This is a really important moment, but there have been no deep analyses of it as a media event, and the fallout afterward,” Hendershot says. “It’s a turning point for the idea of ‘liberal media bias’ taking hold as a nationalized sort of discourse. It’s important to be thinking about what’s regarded as a Golden Age of news coverage and how that came to be destabilized after the convention.”