TV and the 1968 Democratic convention: ‘They hated us for showing it to them’
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We can’t come close to agreeing on what’s happening in this country. Illegal presidency of a pathologically narcissistic would-be tyrant? Or Golden Age of proud true Americanism reclaiming our stolen birthright? You decide!
Given the gulf in perspectives about what’s happening right now, what hope is there of agreeing about the few crumbs of history we carry around on our shirtfronts? None.
Still, we try. This week marks the 50th anniversary of Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention: Aug. 26-30, 1968. To get in the mood, I’ve been devouring a fascinating 1991 memoir, “Out of Thin Air,” by Reuven Frank, former president of NBC News.
Television’s influence on our political conventions did not start in 1968. The four networks began May 1, 1948; ABC, NBC, CBS and the short-lived Dumont. Those new networks, thanks to the miracle of coaxial cable, could reach seven cities on the East Coast, from Boston to Richmond, but that was enough to sway the choice of where the 1948 Democratic National Convention would be held.
“When the manager of WFIL-TV, Philadelphia … pointed out that a third of America … would be ‘within reach’ of a television set, San Francisco, which had more hotel rooms, withdrew its bid,” Frank writes.
Anyone who thinks that the dawn of television was all Edward R. Murrow speaking truth to power should read this book. I couldn’t tell if my favorite moment was R.J. Reynolds, sponsor of NBC’s Camel News Caravan, forbidding shots of “No Smoking” signs, real live camels (nasty beasts) and anyone smoking a cigar, which required Frank to get special permission to air an interview with Winston Churchill. Or Texaco writing a news report that Chet Huntley read word for word.
Then the 1968 convention. Chicago telephone installers went on strike in May, a development generally blamed on Mayor Daley. “Without them there could be no live television coverage,” Frank writes. Only after Democratic leaders publicly mused about shifting the convention to another city did Daley find a compromise: the cameras would be installed, but in severely-restricted locations.
The protesters were not deterred.
“Daley … had outsmarted himself,” Frank writes. “The demonstrators, knowing where the mayor and the Chicago police had situated the mobile units…came to them … The next two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, August 27 and 28, more than at any time before or since, a national convention exploded into a national drama. It wouldn’t have happened if television were not there.”
Echoes of our current day abound. Lyndon Johnson avoided Chicago then for the same reason Donald Trump does now; the sense he would not be “warmly received.”
When an Ohio congressman praised the police for showing “the patience of Job” and mocked the clothes and hair of demonstrators, “Texas cheered; California booed,” Frank writes.
At a key moment at the end of the convention, you can almost feel a shift from the formal past toward our chaotic media present.
Frank, in the NBC control room, is looking at monitors showing dry convention speeches and monitors showing violence in the streets.
“I always felt obligated to run nominating speeches in full, no matter how long,” he writes. “It would be hard to follow that rule tonight. … I could see running and clubbing and bleeding, confusion and violence. … I had to decide whether to show it … or stay with the convention.”
Frank cut away from the speeches to show rioting outside. The media paid for it, and pays for it still.
“We had not led protests or clubbed demonstrators; we had not goaded police or fired tear gas,” writes Frank, who died in 2006. “Our sin was being there — with cameras.”
In an infamous interview, Daley went on air with Walter Cronkite to deliver a stream of lies about the violence.
“It was a victory for the fatuousness of deadpan journalism,” Frank writes. “CBS gave Daley a platform all his own, to attack with no one defending, to make unchallenged, unrebutted excuses for four days of what, when they happened in other countries, we called human rights violations. … Congress would embrace Daley’s basic defense, and that of his supporters, that it was our fault, that we were the villains, we were arrogant, we must have made it up.”
Frank points out that the worst of the convention violence was not on TV, but “what we did show sickened those who watched, and they hated us for showing it to them.”
Some things never change.