Police Riot, Chicago, 28 August 1968: Leading members of the liberal media establishment telegrammed Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, condemning the way his Police Department repeatedly singled out and deliberately beat newsmen, allegedly to "prevent reporting of an important confrontation between police and demonstrators which the American public as a whole has a right to know." The American public backed Dick Daley and his cops.
FOR THE LIBERAL US NEWS MEDIA, 28 August 1968 was “the day the music died”. That was the day Chicago’s finest unleashed what a later inquiry would describe as a “Police Riot”. In full view of the TV networks’ cameras, the Chicago Police Department fired canister after canister of tear gas, sprayed gallons of mace into people’s faces at point-blank range, and rained down torrents of billy-club blows on unarmed anti-war protesters, delegates to the Democratic Party’s National Convention, and – horror of horrors – working journalists. CBS News’s Dan Rather was roughed up as the cameras rolled, prompting his colleague, Walter Cronkite, to declare live, on nationwide television: “I think we’ve got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”
It was shocking stuff, and the newspaper publishers, their editors, and the network bosses weren’t afraid to say so. Confident that they spoke for the overwhelming majority of decent, civic-minded American citizens, the owners of America’s largest and most liberal media institutions roundly rebuked the behaviour of the Chicago Police Department and their brutal boss, Mayor Richard Daley.
Imagine, then, the liberal establishment’s profound shock and dismay when the overwhelming majority of decent, civic-minded Americans backed Mayor Daley and his rioting policemen. In the fortnight following the riot, the Chicago Mayor’s Office received 74,000 letters supporting his response to the anti-war protests. Fewer than 8,000 were critical of the way the Mayor and his Police Department had handled the situation. The nation’s pollsters confirmed these correspondents’ sentiments. Political pundits would later say that Richard Nixon did not win the 1968 presidential election on 2 November; he won it on 28 August.
The American public’s response to the Chicago Police Riot had a noticeably chastening effect on the liberal US media. Writing just a week after the event, the widely syndicated US columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Joseph Kraft, drew attention to the deep class divisions that liberal journalism at once reflected and exacerbated:
“On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovators.”
“In the circumstances,” Kraft concluded, “it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public.”
Thirteen years later, and 13,000 kilometres south-west of Chicago, the “sovereign public’s” view of the news media was strikingly similar. In 1981: The Tour, his history of the 1981 Springbok Tour, Geoff Chapple describes an encounter between a crowd of Hamilton rugby patrons denied their match with the South African team, and a 25-year-old Radio New Zealand reporter from Auckland:
“He was slung around with radio-telephone gear, and he was a target too. The rugby crowd shouted at him: ‘You caused all this to happen, you bastards!’”
If one listens carefully, amidst all the clamour of protest at the possible cancellation of TV3’s liberal news and current affairs programme, Campbell Live, there is an unmistakeable echo of the same outrage that gripped the champions of a free press in Chicago and Hamilton. It is also a pretty safe bet that most of it is coming from “highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently”.
In his famous post-Chicago column, Kraft invoked the medieval Catholic Church’s concept of “plenary indulgence” (the wholesale forgiveness of sins) to convey some sense of the invincible moral confidence that afflicts so many liberal journalists. That the judgements flowing from such confidence might be construed (by those required to live in circumstances of considerably less moral clarity) as a species of reproof never enters their heads.
Also absent from their calculations is the uncomfortable fact that, in a robust secular democracy, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are what the majority say they are. Nothing makes the majority madder than being preached at by those who came second.
If as many New Zealanders voted for Campbell Live with their remotes as currently watch Seven Sharp, its future would be assured.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 April 2015.