Framing the Sixties


The 1960s continue to open and salt wounds in the US political and cultural psyche over forty years later.  From the holiday celebrating a domesticated Martin Luther King, Jr. to the hysterical hype around the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, the actual history of that period continues to be manipulated and misrepresented by popular journalism, Hollywood and TV, creating a scenario where fiction becomes fact and facts become harder and harder to discover.  The skeptical observer might ask if there is some kind of conspiracy afoot to obliterate the radical reality of that time period.

Author and historian Edward Morgan doesn’t go that far in his recently published study of the 1960s and the media, but he does raise interesting and pertinent questions regarding the nature of the fifth estate’s (and its fictional counterpart in Hollywood) representation of that period’s popular struggles then and now.  According to Morgan, it’s not that the media didn’t cover the movements against racism and imperial war in the period known as The Sixties.  It’s how they covered them.  Of course, one might argue that any coverage was better than the almost complete lack of media attention most progressive grassroots movements experience today.

Like many other historians that focus on the period, Morgan accepts an understanding that the mainstream media sees the Sixties historically as being divided into two primary periods.  First, there were the "good" Sixties.  This was when African-American and white Americans battled racist laws and those who upheld them in America’s south.  Their tactics were nonviolent and their cause was morally unimpeachable.  A complementary part of this history puts men like the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Baines Johnson at the front of this struggle against segregation and for racial justice.  Morgan points out that this retelling ignores the very real facts that the mainstream media was not as supportive of the antiracist movement during that period as it claims it was now.  Furthermore, both the Kennedys and LBJ were forced by events to support civil rights legislation that was opposed by the very powerful Southern wing of their political party.  They did not carry the torch of civil rights until it was politically necessary.

The "bad" Sixties, then, were composed of Black Panthers, urban riots, radical students fighting police and blowing up buildings, and so-called hippies like Charles Manson.  Morgan calls these elements "media outsiders" and contends that the portrayal of these "outsiders" as such was related to the media’s role in defining the parameters of dissent–parameters which had been transgressed repeatedly by 1968.  In addition, it was the combination of those parameters, the "outsiders" desire to get their message across to the broader public, and the media’s portrayal of those attempts as spectacle that combined to limit the appeal of those whose protests targeted the roots of the war in Vietnam and racism in the United States.  In other words, truly radical and anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist debate was considered foreign by the mainstream media (liberal and conservative) and would be treated as such, no matter what. 

Morgan provides example after example.  Martin Luther King Jr was a true hero of the media until he publicly spoke out against the US war on the people of Vietnam.  Betty Friedan and her Feminine Mystique was palatable once one finished reciting the standard jokes about feminists.  The more radical elements of the women’s movement, on the other hand, were portrayed (and consequently perceived) as men-hating witches and lesbians.  The Beatles were positively presented until they made it known that they took LSD and considered themselves to be part of the counterculture.   And so on.

Behind the delightfully vivid discussions of iconic and not-so-iconic events, people and movements that occurred during the period we call the Sixties is Morgan’s underlying premise that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive.  Acknowledging that this premise goes counter to the standard tale we are told by those who rule the United States, Morgan points out that "capitalism and its companion political theory, liberalism, are grounded in a view of humans as essentially self-interested beings" who need political society and its laws only to curb the excesses that such self-interest might create.  Democracy, on the other hand, "rests on a foundation different from the self-interested individualism of capitalism."  It’s not that humans are not self-centered; it’s that they are so much more than that.  It is the latter actuality, argues Morgan, that informed the popular grassroots movements of the Sixties and continues to inform similar movements today.  Likewise, it is the former supposition that informed (and informs) those in power and their media accomplices.  Therefore, there was bound to be a conflict between those popular movements that depended on participatory democracy and the established power structure.  After all, the fundamental impetus of grassroots democracy is that the people have the power, not some representatives chosen from the power elites or the corporate interests they represent.

If one considers this when studying media representations then and now (of the Sixties and today), it becomes clear that the media understood its tole to be one of protecting the powers that be.  Although this was occasionally difficult, especially when the images presented were impossible to reinterpret in a manner favorable to the power elites, in general the corporate media was able to perform its task.  When images were impossible to explain away, the media merely explained them in such a way that the overall structure of power was unperturbed, while regressive elements that conflict with the necessities of corporate America were rendered to the (often well-deserved) dustbin of history.  No better example comes to my mind than the video of Birmingham police and their dogs attacking civil rights protesters.  The time for legal apartheid had come to an end in the United States and the media was doing its part by pointing to reactionary politicians and police in the US South as the only  racists in the nation.  By doing so, the deeper question of racism’s role in building the modern US economy and its continued existence throughout the US could be whitewashed away.   When the riots in Watts and other US cities proved otherwise, as did Malcolm X and groups like the Black Panthers.  However, true to their role, these phenomena were presented in the media as spectacle without context.  This rendered them meaningless or, even worse, criminal.  As noted above, this scenario replayed itself over and over (and does to this day).  When it came to the war in Vietnam, those who portray(ed) it as a colossal mistake and not an imperial exercise were (and are) given play in the mainstream media, while those who understand things differently are not. 

What Really Happened to the 1960s is a look at the role the media played in the presentation and interpretation of the struggles of the 1960s.  Simultaneously, it is a consideration of the meaning of democracy in a society where the media is owned by corporations and elites who consider democracy antithetic to their hegemony.   The nature of democracy is an important element of this book.  Indeed, the need to struggle to regain some democracy in the world is an important element of this book.  It is Morgan’s contention that understanding how corporate media helped and hindered the democratic movements of the Sixties will help us develop today’s grassroots movements.  His text does an excellent job of developing that understanding.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net 


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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