War, riots and assassinations: 1968’s TV news paved the way for today’s endless, opinion-heavy coverage
North Korean nuclear missile tests. Russian interference in elections. A mercurial president who can send the stock market into a tailspin with a provocative tweet. Those are just a fraction of the stories that have turned TV news into a nonstop, anxiety-inducing saga in 2018.
But the chaos chronicled in the current era of 24-hour coverage on cable and the web is still no match for 1968, when TV brought political assassinations, street riots and a brutal guerrilla war into America’s living rooms.
The extraordinary confluence of events riveted the nation and made anchors such as Walter Cronkite more influential than ever, helping to shape the current TV news business. At the same time, the polarizing issues covered in 1968 created a hostility toward the media that reverberates half a century later.
Although viewers look back fondly at the reassuring authority broadcast news had in the turbulent era, CBS, NBC and ABC also faced accusations of bias, hints of punitive action by politicians and growing public distrust — not unlike the challenges the media now face in covering the combative Trump White House.
“The scrutiny that we got at broadcast news was even greater than it is today, both internal and external,” said George Merlis, a veteran producer who oversaw public relations for ABC News in 1968. “There were only three of us, so everybody picked over very carefully what we did and how we did it.”
Cable was nonexistent and the founding of Ted Turner’s 24-hour CNN was still 12 years away. When major stories broke in 1968, the Big Three broadcast networks interrupted their entertainment programming with hours of continuous coverage — airing images of inner city neighborhoods aflame, rioting antiwar protesters and funeral processions for heroic leaders.
Network news did not become essential for most viewers until the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, which led to four days of uninterrupted coverage. It was only two months earlier that Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News” expanded from 15 minutes to half an hour a night.
“From the time that Kennedy was killed until, really, long after he was buried, there was this sense of, ‘If I want to know what’s going on I have to turn on my TV set,’” said Ted Koppel, an ABC News correspondent at the time.
By 1968, the nation “clearly discovered its obsession with television, which became probably more important, in terms of news, than it ever had before,” he added.
As the decade progressed, satellite transmissions were bringing filmed reports from hot spots around the world to TV viewers faster than ever before.
By fall 1968, viewers saw live pictures of Soviet troops invading Czechoslovakia and the protests of United States Olympic team members Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their black-gloved fists against racism during the gold medal ceremony at the Summer Games in Mexico City.
Technological advancement also meant graphic battlefield footage in South Vietnam, which had once taken days for news bureaus to ship back to the United States, could be transmitted out of Tokyo or Hong Kong hours after it was filmed. Television brought viewers closer to the front lines just as the protracted war in Vietnam became the defining political issue of the year.
“At Harvard, I used to watch the ‘CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite’ with my roommates before I’d go off to dinner,” said Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. “Obviously, Vietnam was not just a story. There was a real question as to whether or not we were going to get drafted and be sent over. It was personal for us.”
The Tet offensive launched in January 1968 provided the most disturbing images yet from the war zone. Network correspondents and producers dodged gunfire outside the American Embassy in Saigon as they filmed soldiers carrying lifeless, bullet-riddled casualties from the scene. The unforgettable footage of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a Vietcong terrorist that was famously captured by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams was also filmed by an NBC News crew and shown on the network.
That led Cronkite, a former World War II correspondent, to travel to Vietnam to see for himself what was happening.
“He had been hearing all of those lies from the Pentagon about how well it was going for three years,” said Ronald Bonn, a senior producer for Cronkite. “All of a sudden it exploded in every city in Vietnam.”
His reporting set the stage for a prime-time special on Vietnam, which aired Feb. 27, 1968. It was a watershed TV news moment when he declared that there was no victory in sight for the U.S. involvement in the war.
“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate,” Cronkite said at the end of the half-hour special.
Although other journalists had similarly challenged the Pentagon’s contention that the military was winning, Cronkite’s words had more impact because of his stature achieved by attracting 20 million viewers each night.
“The fact that it came from Walter, who was perceived as sort of the embodiment of news objectivity — it clearly had an entirely different impact,” Koppel said.
To this day, some conservative pundits cite Cronkite’s broadcast as a damaging turning point in the U.S. military efforts in Southeast Asia, suggesting that it eroded public support. John Laurence, whose reporting on the ground in Vietnam for CBS also strongly influenced Cronkite’s commentary, dismissed such talk.
“All the optimists who argued that we were winning were doing a terrible disservice to our country,” Laurence said. “They really did not know what they were talking about. So too do the revisionists of today who would have people believe that Walter was somehow undermining the war effort by being truthful about what he had learned.”
Cronkite’s evenhanded approach to the news had become the industry standard, so when he began expressing his views on the war, other anchors and correspondents followed. Those broadcasts provided a glimpse of the blend of opinion and news that evolved on cable TV decades later. “He legitimized anchors and senior reporters stepping out of the purely objective role,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
On June 6, 1968, the day after Robert F. Kennedy was fatally shot following his win in the California Democratic primary, NBC’s David Brinkley warned viewers that political assassination was putting the country in danger of becoming a police state. “And in a police state, people don’t shoot politicians, politicians shoot the people,” he said.
Such grim pronouncements were not unusual in a tumultuous year that some likened to a revolution. But some viewers and critics balked at the trend.
“For the first time TV lost face as a news medium,” TV Guide, then the bible for television watchers, stated at the end of 1968. “Its heroes, the Huntleys and Brinkleys and Cronkites, suddenly became — in the eyes of many viewers — clay-footed men, roundly berated as biased interlopers.”
One of the biggest detractors of TV news was in the White House.
“The Johnson administration was in an adversarial relationship with the news media just as the Trump administration is today but it was on a much more, shall we say, mature level,” Merlis said.
President Johnson did not have Twitter, Trump’s social media weapon of choice, to push back against stories and anchors he didn’t like. Instead, Johnson used the telephone, calling to complain to a network news chief when he was unhappy with a story.
Media executive Tom Johnson, then a young White House press aide, recalled how the president had a single remote control enabling him to adjust the sound on three television sets installed in the Oval Office as he monitored simultaneous news coverage on CBS, NBC and ABC.
“He consumed information from daylight to midnight,” Tom Johnson recalled. “He had the Associated Press and United Press International tickers actually in the Oval Office and read every dispatch.”
President Johnson tried to cajole anchors as well. Merlis remembered how Harry Reasoner once closed his Sunday evening newscast on CBS by announcing he would be off the following week for an assignment in Vietnam. After seeing the program, President Johnson immediately called Reasoner and invited him to the Oval Office, where the president tried to shape his views before he left on the trip.
One month after Cronkite’s commentary, President Johnson surprised the nation when he said at the end of a March 31 televised address that he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination for president that year.
Although he had decided a couple of months earlier not to run for reelection because of his ill health, he was clearly affected by Cronkite’s reports, Tom Johnson said.
The day after the president gave the March 31 address, he made a surprise visit to an annual convention of TV station owners and executives gathered in Chicago.
In his remarks to the group, he complained that TV news reporting was too negative and wondered how past U.S. military actions would have fared if they had been covered with the kind of “vivid scenes” shown during the Vietnam conflict.
“The commentary that you provide can give the real meaning to the issues of the day or it can distort them beyond all meaning,” the president said. “By your standards of what is news, you can cultivate wisdom — or you can nurture misguided passion.”
Johnson’s remarks recognized TV’s rising power and the fraught relationship it would have with a public shaken by the events that followed.
Television news got pulled deeper into the country’s political strife that summer at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when delegates gathered to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Chris Wallace, working as a 20-year-old intern in the CBS newsroom that summer, recalls smelling the tear gas wafting up from Michigan Avenue as he watched police beat antiwar protesters with billy clubs. Nearby his father, Mike Wallace, then a rising star at CBS News, was struck by a policeman and arrested at the convention hall.
Viewers at home were shaken by violent images as well. “It’s like watching a Nazi war movie with storm troopers and all,” read one telegram sent to NBC’s Brinkley. “God help the people of Chicago.”
The mayhem spilled into the TV studios. In a bid for ratings, ABC News hired commentators William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal to face off each night after the network’s convention and election coverage. The heated exchanges — Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley threatening to punch Vidal in the face — electrified viewers. Merlis, who witnessed every confrontation, believes the duo provided the template for the debate-driven opinion programming on cable news.
Koppel called the riots in Chicago a “natural culmination” of the turmoil seen in the war coverage, civil unrest and assassinations the country had witnessed. By that summer, the networks had already shown the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after he was slain in Memphis, Tenn., in April 1968. Live cameras followed the train carrying the body of Robert Kennedy. An audience of more than 120 million people watched each event.
As the country sought answers to the violence, television was cited as a cause. The Democratic National Committee even had in its 1968 party platform that the FCC should revoke TV station licenses if the “all too frequent practice of exploiting violence” in programming did not end.
Politicians also blamed the presence of TV cameras for intensifying inner city uprisings over such issues as income inequality and police brutality.
The TV images of the police riots in Chicago only added pressure on the news divisions. Congress conducted a largely fruitless investigation into bias and inaccuracy in news coverage afterward. The networks were accused of playing up the violence on the streets to make more compelling TV viewing.
Hundreds of viewers complained to the FCC. They said network coverage was unfair to Chicago police and biased toward the opposition to the Vietnam war.
“I think that America was not prepared for the way the opinion had shifted on the war and this was one of the first real physical demonstrations of that,” said Bob Eaton, who worked for NBC in Chicago at the time. “People sitting at home expecting to watch a political convention were not ready to see that.”
Bonn said there was truth to the antiwar protesters seeking maximum TV exposure. “This was the first media-savvy generation,” he said. “They knew how we worked and they knew what we wanted, and what we wanted was lively film.”
But Bonn also recalled how CBS News President Richard Salant ordered crews to pack up their cameras and equipment if any protests appeared to be staged or heightened for the cameras.
There was nothing contrived about the violence to Jack Perkins, who remembered reporting for NBC from the top of a mobile unit truck in Chicago as police clashed with protesters and injured two network camera operators. He was gasping for air from the tear gas as he tried to file his story while a crowd chanted, “the whole world is watching.”
“Somebody on the ground level handed up a wet cloth,” Perkins recalled. “He motioned that I should put it on my face. I inhaled a good several times. Then I could talk and continue my reporting.”
After taking another wet cloth from a protester, Perkins realized it was soaked with urine, which mitigated the effects of the tear gas.“I was happily taking it in,” he said. “It was the only way I could stay on the air.”
After Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, he continued to vilify the media right through the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency.
Nixon lost his battle with the press, but viewers who were skeptical of established news outlets eventually became a marketable audience once cable TV provided more channels. Eventually Rupert Murdoch, with the help of Nixon’s 1968 campaign media advisor Roger Ailes, launched Fox News as a conservative alternative.
Blaming of the media now comes from both sides of the political spectrum. After President Trump was elected, many detractors claimed excessive TV news coverage of his candidacy was a factor in his success.
That reflects the greatest similarity between 1968 and today: the intense political divide of the audience.
“As a citizen [in 1968], I was worried that the country was being polarized as never before and that no good would come of it,” Laurence said. “I had to wait 50 years before having the same worries again.”
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