A Mediating Mess: How American Post-WWII Media Undermined Democracy

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Editors notes: This review originally appeared in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture (5.2, pages 254 – 257).  Unfortunately, in its original publication, the review  misidentified Professor Morgan as Edmund rather than Edward. These errors  have been corrected here. Apologies to Prof. Edward P. Morgan for the mishap.

When the Swift Boat controversy engulfed the 2004 election campaign, America’s obsession with the Vietnam War once again reared its ugly head.  Democratic candidate and decorated Vietnam Veteran John Kerry’s staunch opposition to the war upon his return from deployment drew harsh critiques from conservatives in the early 1970s and in 2004.  The “swift boating” of Kerry only highlighted this long simmering resentment as liberals and conservatives mouthed the usual debates about American intervention. When Barack Obama lamented the pitched rhetoric and confrontational politics of the 1990s and 2000s, he blamed the political gridlock on the  “the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”[1] For Edward P. Morgan these kind of examples underline the pervasive effects of postwar mass media: the undermining of democracy and a crystallization of the 1960s as a now humorous but non-political artifact of the boomer generation.

According to Morgan, framing the 1960s as generational both in terms of being the property of the baby boom cohort and as a conflict emerging largely from age related differences, obscures the real diversity of the decade’s social movements.  Moreover, the media’s role in crafting the Vietnam narrative, Morgan argues, fails to ever truly interrogate U.S. foreign policy and ignores the war’s devastation for the Vietnamese people.  Instead, the media focuses obsessively with the memories of the war, but never from the perspective that US foreign policy might have been morally wrong.   When elites and officials spoke of the “Vietnam syndrome”, they referred not to a mistaken foreign policy objective, but the public’s “pathological” resistance to military intervention. [2]

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John Kerry and Vietnam

Anyone familiar with Noam Chomsky, Benjamin Bagdikian, Todd Gitlin, Rick Perlstein and Lizabeth Cohen should understand Morgan’s general thrust. Like Chomsky and Bagdikian, Morgan notes media’s corporatization and its imposition of acceptable discourse that emphasized a “market dialectic” which ultimately marginalized those voices that challenged the rules of debate.   As with Cohen and Bagdikian, Morgan points out that the consumer based citizenship and the profit motive of neoliberalism drove the media to produce infotainment rather than hard news.  Interested in profits over content, mass media portrayals of the 1960s have been overwhelmed by profit driven media and culture.  Figures like Che Guevera, silk screened onto countless t-shirts, no longer represent rebellion, but rather have been transformed into “a mass produced commodity itself or the seductive hook to draw one into consumption.”[3] Drawing upon Gitlin, Morgan demonstrates the media’s obsession with violence and oddity.  When covering protests, “the mass media were reflexively drawn to visual representation of the most bizarre and deviant of these acts.”[4] The media continued to highlight these kinds of images both creating a caricature of the era’s politics and movements, but also providing right wing conservatives with visual evidence to spur backlash and mobilize political support.  In turn, backlash inspired a political discourse “in which,” Morgan argues, “political adversaries are treated as enemies worthy only of attack.”[5]  Finally, like Perlstein, Morgan points to the cowering figures of media leaders like Walter Cronkite who reacted to public criticism of sympathetic journalistic coverage of the left by groveling at the feet of political leaders like Chicago’s Mayor Daley.

In What Reallly Happened to the Sixites, Morgan boils the problem with media down to one overwhelming force: free market neoliberal economics. Granted new right figures like Ronald Reagan emerge as problematic, but conservative promotion of free market economics appears to be their most damaging contribution to American democracy. More simply, the profit motive and increasing corporate structure of the media affected its coverage in more ways than described above. In terms of race and gender, media outlets focused disproportionately on white males as both victims in the civil rights movement and leaders of the various social movements that blossomed in the 1960s.   Despite the fact numerous black activists and leaders had given their lives for the cause, the deaths of white civil rights workers dominated media reports in turn helped galvanizing northern sympathies for the movement and condemnation for Southern governments.  Yet while media attention drew more attention to the privations of Black life in the American South, it also reinforced the tendency to isolate racial prejudice as part of an “exceptional South”.   Additionally, the media imposed a rhetorical structure that privileged perceived moderates and marginalized those it considered too radical.  For example, Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1964 Democratic Convention protest drew sharp criticism from venerable Newsweek magazine, which described her as “demagogic” for “attacking middle class Negroes and whites. American policy in Vietnam, and Martin Luther King.” Of course, once King shifted the civil rights movement to Northern environs like Chicago and also marshaled critiques against American intervention in Southeast Asia, the media viewed him with increasing skepticism and hostility. Needless to say, the media presented the Black Power movement’s attempt to assert black equality as little more than anti-white hysteria.

Feminists struggled to pull free from the press’ tendency to ignore issues and focus on only the most outrageous protests.  This drove numerous feminists to levels of stridency they might have otherwise avoided.  Women’s rights advocates acknowledged the importance of media in getting their message across and raising awareness, but the media’s tunnel vision required many protesters to express a militancy that would catch the attention of the local news, at once gaining publicity but also alienating audience members.  NOW’s articulation of women’s rights in terms of job equity and pay fit the media’s prescribed rhetorical structures, but radical feminists struggled to gain equivalency.  In general, Morgan argues, “the mass media consistently cast those who targeted deeper institutional ills outside the bounds of legitimate discourse.”[6]

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For Morgan the answer to many of the ills afflicting the mass media’s portrayal of the 1960s can be traced to a “democratic dialectic” that encouraged collective action and direct democracy.   “The dynamic of empowerment involves a dialectical interaction between awareness and action, subjective an objective, self and other, individual and collective, the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’,” writes Morgan.[7]  The mass media fails to envision, consider, or grasp these dynamics or this kind of democracy making the dialectic largely “incomprehensible”.  Instead, the “market dialectic” rules the day.  Fundamentally different from its democratic counterpart, the prevailing market dialectic depends on the marketplace and its offerings.  If the market fails to provide a particular individual choice then it does not exist. Even worse, these choices descend from on high, meaning they do not arise out of the organic desires of consumers but rather “marketing experts devise ways of measuring the publics “wants” in ways in which the experts’ real objectives are obscured, and they produce and package the “choices” for the public to consume,” argues Morgan.[8]  With the overall promotion of consumption and attempts by marketers to delve into the “private, internal, and subconscious worlds people in habit”, it should come as no surprise that such market based orientations bled their way into political advertising.

Much of Morgan’s source material comes from four places: Newsweek, the New York Times, Time, and the popular culture of 1970, 80s, and 90s television and film.   Morgan deconstructs advertising approaches like the Pepsi Generation campaign, television shows like All in the Family, Family Ties, and the Cosby Show, and movies such as The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket, to illustrate larger points about the media’s insistence on the generational conflict model, false notions of foreign policy, the dangers of commodification, and the use of irony to undermine the real political meanings of the decade. This stands as one of Morgan’s stronger arguments.  However, Morgan’s most valuable insight regards the media’s inability to point out or discuss its own role in shaping and transmitting ideas about the 1960s.   Despite playing a central role in crafting narratives and images, the media rarely steps back to appraise its own work in any critical way.  In part, this explains the popularity of fake news programs like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

With the explosion of the internet and the proliferation of blogs, one might argue that the very commodification that Morgan decries has been somewhat blunted.  While John McMillian suggests in his work Smoking Typewriters that the  alternative press of the 1960s functioned in ways similar to blogs today – a kind of free ranging stream of consciousness political framing that established structures and lifestyles that others could follow – one wonders if this form of participatory democracy fragments too easily.[9]  Social media like Twitter and Facebook, no doubt inspire some sense of community and participation, but they also breed a sort of narcissism that some studies report rob many young people of a key component of collective action: empathy.   Moreover, social media and blogs have evolved in the very pro market economics and profit motive that Morgan decries.

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Taken as a whole, in What Really Happened to the Sixties, Morgan provides a solid synthesis of the past three decades of scholarship on media, but not all of his conclusions seem new.   Additionally, for all his coverage of the feminist movement and the attention paid to the media’s portrayal of gender and race, Morgan never even acknowledges the racial and class divides that delegitimized feminism for non-white and working class women.  Black, Asian, Chicana, and working class feminists voiced legitimate concerns about the wider movement, yet their critiques went largely ignored then as they do in Morgan’s work.   In the end, Morgan delivers a solid book that any media studies major should engage if only for the value of its synthesis and its break down of popular culture in the post 1960s era.


[1] Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, New York: Crown Press, 2006.

[2] Edward P. Morgan, What Really happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2010, 247.

[3] Ibid, 264.

[4] Ibid, 155.

[5] Ibid, 5.

[6] Ibid, 90.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] Ibid, 35-36.

[9] John McMillan, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, Cambridge, MA: Oxford Press, 2011.

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