Told  /  Book Review

Seeing Was Not Believing

A new book identifies the 1968 Democratic convention as the moment when broad public regard for the news media gave way to widespread distrust, and American divisiveness took off.

Journalism’s crisis began many years ago, but in her new book, When the News Broke, Heather Hendershot identifies a specific moment when broad public regard for the news media gave way to the widespread belief that they could not be trusted. This was in August 1968, during the infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a gathering remembered today for the violence directed against young demonstrators by the police and the National Guard. As they faced assault on the city streets, protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching!” They knew that earlier in the 1960s, televised images of violence against civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Selma, and other cities had galvanized public support for the civil rights movement. But this time, Hendershot says, violence in the streets had a different result. A large majority of TV viewers sided with the police and excoriated the networks for liberal bias.

Hendershot, who teaches film and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presents a vivid account of the events in Chicago, chronicling the actions of a cast of characters that includes TV reporters, demonstrators, and Mayor Richard J. Daley. The last of the old-time city bosses, Daley was so desperate to use the convention to enhance his own reputation that he had a picture of his smiling face attached to every telephone in a hotel that housed reporters and on billboards on the way into town from the airport, and ordered fences constructed to block views of Chicago’s slums. To ensure that television conveyed the image of a Democratic Party unified in enthusiasm for its nominee for president, Hubert Humphrey, Daley had counterfeit tickets distributed to some five thousand machine operatives. Arriving at sessions early, they filled the seats in the galleries, roaring their approval when Humphrey’s name was mentioned and leaving little room for supporters of other candidates. (Nearly a century earlier, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign managers pulled off the same trick at the Republican National Convention of 1860, which also met in Chicago.)