Many of us got an awful gut punch February 7 as we learned activist, writer and scholar Todd Gitlin had died. The memorials and encomia poured forth, reminding readers that Todd was elected president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 when he was only 20; that, in 1965, he helped organize the first national demonstration against the war in Vietnam as well as against apartheid in South Africa; that, much more recently, he organized writers and activists to oppose Republicans’ efforts to subvert free and fair elections. And so much more.
What I’d like to commemorate is that Todd absolutely revolutionized how many of us thought about (and then taught about) the impact of the mainstream media, especially on progressive social movements. The crucial text here is his pathbreaking fourth book, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (1980).
In the academy in the 1950s and 1960s, there were two dominant conceptions of mass media. One was that nearly all of it was so vapid, banal, crass and evanescent that studying anything in it was ridiculous and beneath contempt. The other was that, compared with the personal influence people had on one another’s values, attitudes and behaviors, the media had only limited effects. In his Molotov cocktail of an essay, “Media Sociology: The Dominant Paradigm” (1978), Todd eviscerated the school of “limited effects,” charging that it ignored “the power of the media to define normal and abnormal social and political activity, to say what is politically real and legitimate and what is not; to justify the two-party political system [and to endorse] certain political agendas [and to] exclude others; and to shape the images of opposition movements.”
Todd brought this framework to The Whole World is Watching, his brilliant and scathing analysis of how the news media — particularly the New York Times and CBS — covered SDS and the antiwar movement. Todd, intimately involved with SDS and the antiwar movement, was astounded and then appalled by the chasm between what he experienced as a movement leader and participant, and what he read and saw about the movement in the news. Under the guise of supposed “objectivity” (which Todd insisted on putting in quotation marks), the media “select certain versions of reality over others” and thereby “commend the inevitability of the established social order.” He emphasized that “the closer an issue is to the core interests of national political elites, the more likely is a blackout of news that effectively challenges that interest.” As “instruments of cultural dominance” and “core systems for the distribution of ideology,” the media work to define any opposition, then “define it away.”
The media perform these tasks in the way they frame stories, as another key media sociologist, Gaye Tuchman, had argued. Media frames are “principles of selection, emphasis and presentation” as well as of “exclusion.” How differently, Todd asked, might the Black and student opposition groups of the 1960s have been popularly viewed if, instead of being cast as causing “civil disturbances,” the press described them as “movements for peace and justice”?
How were SDS and the antiwar movement framed, and what were the consequences? At first, the press ignored SDS and its grassroots activism, but after the SDS-organized March on Washington in April 1965, SDS became big news. As the activism and the media coverage both grew, deprecating media frames began to take hold. There was trivialization — “making light of the movement” and dismissing participants because of their age, hair or clothing. There was marginalization — casting demonstrators as deviant or unrepresentative. There was polarization — emphasizing counterdemonstrations by neo-Nazis (however few) as the “other side” equivalent. And there was disparagement of the movement’s effectiveness and its size — by undercounting the number of demonstrators.
Gradually, the coverage emphasized the alleged presence of Communists, trained its cameras on those carrying Viet Cong flags, spotlighted any violence in demonstrations, delegitimized the demonstrations by putting quotation marks around terms like “peace march,” and paid increasing attention to any right-wing opposition.
One of Todd’s most compelling (and infuriating) examples of these frames was how the Times covered the April 1965 March on Washington. A headline — “Holiday From Exams” — trivialized the seriousness of the students. The fact that people protested in front of the White House while President Lyndon Johnson was “at his ranch in Texas” was used to imply the ineffectuality of the movement. But Todd’s most scorching evidence of bias was in the Times’ selection of photos. Although the antiwar protestors outnumbered counterdemonstrators by at least 150 to one, the Times published a cropped photo that visually “equate[d] the antiwar and right-wing demonstrations” to suggest the groups of students and the Nazis were equally large.
Todd’s great aphorism was that the media are never “mirrors” of some reality, but funhouse mirrors — magnifying certain kinds of people, values, positions and attitudes, while minimizing or erasing others. This truism, Todd noted, captures the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma for progressive social or political movements. They need the media spotlight to gain attention for their issues, but this attention often requires movements to appear shocking and strident. That means they will be trivialized, marginalized and discredited in the process. Meanwhile, if movement leaders are “well-mannered” and slogans “reasonable,” the movement won’t be disparaged — but its issues will become diluted and partially assimilated, and “its oppositional edge blunted.”
Thus, The Whole World is Watching provided a trenchant and unsparing model for how to analyze — and anticipate — how all progressive movements would be covered; hence, its massive influence and significance. I have taught this book on and off for 40 years, and it never ceases to blow my students away. It opens their eyes to the centrist-right, elite-legitimating, status-quo buttressing stance of most of the mainstream media. As Todd concluded in one of his poignant final sentences, because of the stubborn persistence of many of these system-sustaining media frames, “society will go on helplessly manufacturing, and deforming, the opposition it deserves.”
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.