One evening in March 1968, I found myself gyrating across a Milwaukee dance floor before television cameras. I knew nothing at all about dancing, but when an NBC news team showed up at our rather sedate celebration after the Wisconsin primary and Lyndon Johnson's decision to withdraw from the presidential race, its shooting orders called for scenes of jubilant young Eugene McCarthy workers frugging the night away.
It was what the public expected, the NBC producer explained. It would identify us as members of the McCarthy's celebrated "Children's Crusade." And for some curious reason, we felt obliged to satisfy those expectations.
In "The Whole World Is Watching," Todd Gitlin, who was president of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1963-64, argues that the SDS was fatally transformed by similar expectations. The organization, he believes, was changed by the media that covered it from an independent political action collective with broad, rational goals, into a conspicuous and theatrical petitioner for public attention, dominated by figures who could supply compeling drama even when their politics were shallow.
The relationship between the media and the SDS grew from virtually nothing in 1965, when SDS was four years old, into something like an active partnership just a few years later. Along the way, media attention expanded from minimal, fairly objective coverage of a Midwestern campus political club into a flood of constant, often harsh publicity for a national society enrolling thousands of members. In return for the publicity, which brought new members, a new style -- long hair, dope, the rhetoric of violence -- and sometimes new respect to the organization, SDS compliantly provided television and print reporters with good copy and photogenic media events. It also allowed media-savvy characters like Columbia's Mark Rudd to assume positions of leadership, and in the end acted out a script that called for its own dissolution into warring factions and its eventual disappearance into the vast abyss of America's forgotten radical past.
Although Gitlin, now assistant professor of sociology and director of the Mass Communications Program at the University of California at Berkeley, may have been tempted to offer conspiracy between media producers for what happened, he presents more complicated reasons.
He argues that the theatrical rise and fall of media attention had to do with what Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called "hegemony." Gitlin writes that hegemony is "a ruling class" domination of subordinate classes and groups through the elaboration and penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and everyday practice; it is the systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order."
Even in such a mouthful of nearly indigestible prose there is some food for thought -- about the way television inculates values and conventional assumptions in contemporary America. In every sense, it frames experience for the public, asserting what is important based on what has been important. Like the NBC producer who had me dancing for Gene McCarthy in 1968, television tends to fulfill the expectations of its audiences.
That's what sells, after all, and selling is basic to the identity of television, which is owned by mammoth corportions and regulated by the federal government -- the perfect expression, in other words, of the tangled web of political controls and concentrated financial power that the New Left pitted itself against in the Vietnam war years.
That is not to say that everything that makes the airways or headlines reflects the bald interests of government and business. Gitlin points out that the "hegemonic frame" that contained SDS and the New Left for half a decade did not remain fixed. In fact, it had three stages, shifting from reasonably sympathetic coverage in 1965, before campus protests appeared threatening, to denigration and implicit criticism after the escalation of the war following the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, coverage again became sympathetic, but it was directed this time at "moderate" alternatives to the now militant New Left.
What makes this shift notable, in Gitlin's view, is the fact that the militancy of SDS and the New Left was in part due to the character of media coverage in the years between 1966 and 1968 when the media-reinforced expectation was that campus protesters would remain a small coterie of antisocial troublemakers.
Those expectations drove SDS first into a theatrical guerrilla posture, later into internal dissension over the threat that emerging moderate alternatives posed to its media position and recruitment efforts, and later yet into real violence, thanks to members who had been attracted precisely by the violent image of the organization -- no matter that it was largely engineered by the media.
I have no quarrel with Gitlin's thesis about the impact of the media on mass ideology, but I wonder if the rise and fall of his organization can be so fully accounted to the impact. Surely Gitlin, the former SDS president, peers through a distorted frame of his own at the assuredly distorted frame that the media drew around the New Left.
There was more to alternative politics in the '60s than SDS, and there was more to media coverage than CBS and The New York Times, Gitlin's chief sources for his book. We might have learned more valuable lessons from a study that treated the broad scope of dissent in those years by print and electronic journalism more typical of the media in general -- and less prominent.