Monday, August 27, 2018

TV and the 1968 Democratic convention: 'They hated us for showing it to them'


Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, by Naim June Paik (Smithsonian American Art Museum) 

     This book was so bottomlessly fascinating I just had to share. Among the facts I hadn't room to include: Thomas Hart Benton did courtroom drawings at a kidnapping trial for NBC. At the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago, Robert Taft hired "all available models" to dress in cheerleader outfits as "Belles for Bob" and hold signs in front of any live TV camera they could find. Television cameras took 15 minutes to warm up, and after NBC's PR department tried to dub the first entirely mobile camera a "walkie-lookie," a newspaper writer offered up a more popular moniker, the "creepie-peepie."

     We can't come close to agreeing about what's happening in this country. Illegal presidency of a pathologically narcissistic would-be tyrant? Or Golden Age of proud true Americanism reclaiming our stolen birthright? You decide!
      Given the gulf in perspectives of what's happening right now, what are the chances we'd agree about the few crumbs of history we carry around on our shirtfronts? Nil.
     The next few days mark the 50th anniversary of Chicago's 1968 Democratic National Convention, from Aug. 26 to 30 of 1968. To get myself in the mood, I've been devouring a fascinating 1991 memoir, "Out of Thin Air," by Reuven Frank, then president of NBC News.
TV affected the 1968 convention. Then again, TV always does. The four networks began on May 1, 1948; ABC, NBC, CBS and the short-lived Dumont. Those new networks, thanks to the miracle of coaxial cable, could only reach 17 stations in seven cities on the East Coast, from Boston to Richmond, but that was enough to sway the choice of where the 1948 Democratic National Convention would be located.
     "When the manager of WFIL-TV, Philadelphia ... pointed out that a third of America ... would be 'within reach' of a television set, San Francisco, which had more hotel rooms, withdrew its bid," Frank writes.
     Anyone who thinks that the dawn of television was all Edward R. Murrow speaking truth to power should read this book. I couldn't tell if my favorite moment was R.J. Reynolds, sponsor of NBC's Camel News Caravan, forbidding shots of "No Smoking" signs, real living camels (nasty) and anyone smoking a cigar, requiring Frank to get special permission to air an interview with Winston Churchill.  Or Texaco writing a news report that Chet Huntley read word for word.
     Then comes the 1968 convention.

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13 comments:

  1. Certainly an eye-opener of a column.

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  2. Once again an historical figure and a twist of fate that I'd never heard of before. "You can't stand the truth" would be a fitting commentary here.

    john

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  3. Debate still goes on among military historians about whether or not the Vietnam War was "winnable." If only the media hadn't undermined public confidence in what we were doing by showing all that negative stuff is an argument advanced by the minority voting "yes." Seems a bit like thinking "if only the sun had risen in the west."

    Tom

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  4. When I saw that picture of Sander Vanocur, & Co. something jumped right out at me: that picture was taken in 1964 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. The arena they are in was then called the Atlantic City Convention Hall. I recognized it from my family's yearly jaunts to see the Ice Capades in the 1950s. At the time it was the largest space without columns, large enough that football could be played on the main floor with the fans sitting in the balcony. The Liberty Bowl was played there for several seasons.

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    1. Wow! Good eye.
      I just googled some 1964 Convention photos and there's no doubt. You're right.

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    2. On the Sun-Times site the picture of NBC floor correspondents is from the 64 convention.

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  5. To me, it's more like saying, Trump would be a success if only the media cast him as a success. If the military was winning the war in Vietnam, then the military would have reported THAT. But they weren't, so the media didn't. It's wrongheaded to blame what followed for what came first.

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    1. I think we could have won in Vietnam. Just the way we've won in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stick around for 15 years or so, shovel in the dough, and declare victory, over and over again. What turned me against the war was the disdain shown by Americans for the Vietnamese people, based not on what they did or didn't do, but on pure racial prejudice.

      john

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    2. Actually, John, we fucked around in Vietnam for 20 years.
      On a different point, I don't think we ever "win" a war. Nothing is ever completely resolved. We go on forever, fighting to preserve and protect whatever it is that "winning" the war accomplished. If the WWI had been won, we wouldn't have had to fight WWII. If WWII was won, why is the Middle East so fucked up? Even here at home, we're not done with the Civil War.

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    3. America "stuck around" for a lot longer than fifteen years. Our history in Southeast Asia can be traced as far back as the Truman administration, when it was still known as Indochina and much of it was under French rule. The real beginning of our involvement was during the early years of Eisenhower's first term...not long after the end of the "police action" in Korea. So that would make it a good twenty years, maybe almost thirty if you count Truman's watch.

      What turned uncounted millions of draft-age Boomers against the war was not the idea of conscription--it was the idea of fighting and possibly dying in a war that made very little sense, in a place we had no business going in the first place.

      The domino theory (lose Vietnam and we'll eventually lose San Francisco) sounded more and more ridiculous, and even absurd as the years dragged on and the military cemeteries filled up, until it became a sick joke. By '68 the New Left had a rebuttal that pretty much said it all in a single sentence: "How many Vietnamese fought in OUR Civil War?"

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    4. We lost in Vietnam due to hubris and memory loss. We believed in the anti-communist cause and knew we could have our way with the Vietnamese. Worse, we forgot how a determined minority could defeat a great power fighting far from home. In the process we lost much of our remaining national humanity. Between Manifest Destiny, the slave trade, subjugation of the natives and a foreign policy driven by business interests rather a good neighbor policy, it's no wonder that much of the world sees a more flawed nation than the one we pledge allegiance to. talk to any European today and he will probably tell you that Trump is not helping our image.

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  6. Thanks for the reminder of the genius of Nam Jun Paik. I always try to see that piece when I'm in DC.

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